Turbo Twenty-Three, by Janet Evanovich**-***

turbotwentytI’ve been a big fan of the Stephanie Plum series since Evanovich launched it over twenty years ago.Twenty? Whoa now, that hardly seems possible. But the first book in the series landed a host of great-first-book awards in 1995, the year before my youngest child was born.  I haven’t missed a single book nor even read any of them out of sequence.

There was a point somewhere along the way when the series started to lose its zip and some of the new fuel the writer injected turned sour. Does anyone recall the bit where Stephanie’s sister moves home from out of state, and one of the sister’s daughters thinks she’s a horse? It was beyond stupid to my way of thinking, but the point is that our author pulled it all back around within the next couple of books and it was funnier and fresher than ever. The last in the series, Tricky Twenty-Two, was an absolute scream, and so although I rarely purchase a book for myself anymore, I plunk #23 onto my Christmas wish list without a moment’s hesitation. And when Christmas is done, I scurry off with my four much-longed-for new books—three of them mysteries– and prepare to feast.

So this is a crushing disappointment. Sad, sad, sad. It isn’t funny enough to actually laugh at even once, and there are aspects of it that actually offend. I consider this sort of odd, given that since her movie deal, Evanovich has actually sanitized a lot of the spicier aspects of her work. The language isn’t nearly as blue as it was when she was new at this thing and had little to lose; the sex isn’t as steamy; and all told, it seems as if her imagination has an agent of its own whispering into its ear, asking just exactly how much revenue she’s willing to risk losing if she pursues this, that, the other creative but risqué notion.

How is it possible then that for the first time in a career of over twenty years and nearly two dozen published mysteries in this series alone, this author has been so politically tone deaf?

As I read one scene involving Stephanie and Lula, a pairing that’s almost always good for a laugh, my face was in a tentative smile, the expression one wears when expecting something funny to happen any minute. And that’s the moment when Lula claims to be extra lucky when seeking employment, because she can check off three boxes; she’s Black, she’s female, and she’s large in size. These should just about ensure that she’ll be hired. And then she tops it off by allowing that the only better thing that could happen would be if she were in an altercation with a cop and got beaten up and landed on YouTube.

Once I see this, I’m not laughing, and now I’m not smiling anymore either. It’s time to put the book away, read something else, and come back later when my blood pressure has settled.

The story continues; it isn’t funny, but it also isn’t dull. My attention is held, and I’m still somewhat convinced that it’s just about to get funny. And that’s when Lula says she is going to make money online by pretending to wake up one day “feeling like I’m a dude” and go use the men’s restroom. She’ll go in, “have my positive experience”, capture it on film and get rich. And of course, there are trans people all over America getting filthy rich just by identifying with a different gender than the one assigned them by nature and their parents…right?

Not so much.

I do find two amusing parts in this story. The first is some understated business with Stephanie’s parents. It’s the only subtle humor she employs, and maybe that’s why it works so well. I love seeing her mom and dad respond to uncomfortable situations.

The second is an entirely unexpected yet believable twist on the whole Morelli-or-Ranger thing, which had begun to go stale. I won’t spoil it for you, because you may still want to read this book.

One other obvious twist is that the writing, which has always been accessible to a reader that’s made it part way through high school, has been dumbed-down considerably. I find myself distracted by the number of four and five word sentences; where’s the fluency? I check the vocabulary and recognize that she’s dialed it down to a fourth grade level. I’ve administered vocabulary tests to fourth and fifth graders, and I find myself having flashbacks of the sort a retired teacher doesn’t really need. What the hell, Janet? Are we marketing to the functionally semi-literate now?

Nevertheless, I’ll be reading #24 when it comes down the pike; but not until I can get it used or free. My wish list is now reserved for other things.

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