Damsel Not In Distress: Stephanie Plum

This article first appeared at the Writers At Play blog, April 2, 2008.

I just finished reading Janet Evanovich’s LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN, which means I’m nearly caught up in the series about Trenton, NJ, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

If you haven’t read any of the books, the series is the continuing story of how Plum takes on the job of bounty hunter to pay the bills after being laid off as a buyer for a lingerie factory. Evanovich’s Plum novels transcend age and gender barriers: my own father-in-law has read nearly all of the books about as quickly as I have. Stephanie is someone most women can identify with, if only for her penchant for sweets and covering one’s pain with mascara. The men are intriguingly hot, and the humor is over the top. If Grandma Mazur’s antics or Vinnie’s ducky amorousness don’t have you cackling, I’m not sure what will.

The romance for Stephanie, in fact a triangle, is what keeps me coming back for more though. It’s the tug of war between reformed bad boy cop Joe Morelli and the dark heart of gold that fuels former Ranger Carlos Manoso (at least I assume his “Ranger” nickname refers to time spent as a U.S. Army Ranger). These are two feral guys who’ve accepted civilization just a little bit, both excellent comrades to Stephanie’s own wild nature: she’s a woman living on her own terms not ready to take on the mantle of civilization that deems her to be a nice Trenton Burg wife and mother; and, oh yeah, her occasional roof-jumping. Have you ever jumped off a roof? Ironically, both myself and my mother have, so maybe that’s in part why I love reading about Stephanie’s adventures.

Intentionally or not, Evanovich makes the point that we’re all only slightly civilized and the behavior of her characters illustrates this over and over again. Even Stephanie’s mother, the queen of decorum, has taken to sipping the cooking wine when the antics get to be too much for her. She channels her wild side by ironing everything in sight — you know eventually Mrs. Plum is going to snap and it’s going to be hilarious. Stephanie’s sister falls off the good-girl-wagon after her divorce. Plum’s married female friends from high school routinely show only a thin veneer of civilization, a persona they’re all willing to throw off for a while to help Stephanie. (Which often involves donning leather attire. What 30s mom wouldn’t relish throwing on her arse-kicking boots and going after the bad guys once in a while — even if those bad guys are only Scooby-snacking stoners?. . . OK, me.)

In many ways Plum is a feminist heroine subverting more than a few stereotypes. She’s a single woman, living alone on her own terms holding down a job usually reserved for the tough guys. On the other hand, Morelli and Ranger rescue Plum quite often. Does this tarnish her feminist mystique? I say no and here’s why. First, I judge the story as a continuing one, as a journey. I don’t see each novel as a standalone piece, but a chapter in a larger story. From this perspective, Morelli and Ranger are more mentors (sexy, hot ones) teaching Plum how to fight the bad guys. They’ve both been trained with these skills by a society that accepts it as a man’s job and they’re subverting that by teaching these skills to a woman.

Second, these guys respect Stephanie. Morelli, Plum’s sometimes boyfriend, really dislikes her job, doesn’t see himself marrying a woman with her kind of life and has said so. However, it’s not because he thinks she’s incapable. On the contrary, despite all of Plum’s foibles, the times Morelli has accompanied her on the job he stands back and doesn’t interfere. The same is true of Ranger, who only takes part or offers his sage opinion when he’s asked, otherwise he’s Steph’s muscle. Stephanie has learned how to do the bounty hunter job from the two men in her life, both of whom have given her the tools for it—sometimes literally when Ranger gives her a gun and implores her to carry her own instead of leaving it stashed in the cookie jar.

Editor-in-chief of LiteraryMama.com Amy Hudock sums up the series nicely:

Stephanie Plum races through her bounty hunter job with remarkable strength, perseverance, and gritty humor — and she does it looking good even though she is fueled by Tastycakes and donuts. Sometimes inept and fumbling, she still gets the job done through sheer will and plenty of good luck. The staff of supporting characters also keep me entertained — a racy, gun-toting grandmother, a bad boy cop sometimes boyfriend, a mysterious bounty hunter sometimes lover, a cross-dressing rocker, a niece who thinks she is a horse, and many more.

Now that we’ve gotten all that seriousness out of the way, we can talk about the important stuff:

  1. Who’s hotter, Morelli or Ranger? (Ranger)
  2. Who would you cast in a movie version of the series? (Stephanie: Sandra Bullock, Ranger: Benjamin Bratt)
  3. How often do you jump off roofs? (Not too often these days, but I do stand on my head routinely and call it Yoga. I really just enjoy the head rush.)

For more of a Stephanie Plum fix: