Hot Six, Janet Evanovich

St. Martin’s, 2000, 336 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-97627-5

There used to be a time, I imagine, where murder mysteries were deathly serious things. The very British origins of the mystery genre may account for it: It’s difficult to imagine Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple bitching about her sex life or dealing with mobsters with a flip remark and a few four-letter words. These days, of course, things are different: comedy and chaos go well with all sorts of criminal activities.

Janet Evanovich’s Hot Six, as the cheeky title suggests, definitely isn’t your grandma’s cozy mystery. Protagonist Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter with a complex caseload and too many personal problems. As the novel begins, her dynamo grandmother moves in her apartment. A dog soon follows. Tasked with finding and bringing back a fugitive who taught her everything she knows, Stephanie can barely deal with the lack of sex, grandma worries, casual threats and multiplicity of crises that soon overwhelm her life.

One thing’s for sure, there’s no chance to be bored when you’re riding with Evanovich: As Stephanie Plum finds herself juggling with half a dozen subplots, the action switches tracks faster than you can catch your breath. Scenes crash into one another without warning, and you can often find the protagonist juggling two, even three things in the span of a single page. This isn’t a quiet way to spend an afternoon: This is an all-point-bulletin, fire-alarm running, acrobats-and-fireworks carnival of plotting. It’s exhausting and still somehow highly satisfying.

The good thing is that this speed-metal riff on criminal investigations is packed with terrific characters and slick writing. Evanovich writes clearly and packs more meaning in a short conversation that most other writers can achieve in entire chapters. This is partly a consequence of the speed at which her novel flies by, but it’s certainly effective: Once you start reading the book, it will be difficult to stop. There are plenty of laughs along the way and few speed traps as the pages breeze past without effort.

But my biggest surprise with Hot Six is how quickly I got drawn into a series despite having no clue about the character or the setting. While I suspect a number of running gags (hmm… The bad luck with cars? The bad shooting? The donuts?), Evanovich does an excellent job at holding the newer readers by the hand and showing the main series landmarks even as the action starts. I suspect that some of the book’s romantic tension may have been heightened had I read the previous books, but that’s not really a significant complaint. (More serious are the shifts in tone required whenever the author needs to show that her heroine is in real trouble, but that comes with the territory when you’re writing a comic crime novel.)

If I have a single complaint about the book, it’s that it leaves a sweet but empty impression. Looking at the book only days after completing it, I remember having a good time, but very few of the specifics. But is that so bad?

As the title indicates, this is the sixth book in the series (which has since grown to include a twelfth volume, with no signs of slowing down) and I can only presume that the chaotic, pedal-to-the-metal style of Hot Six is representative of the rest of Evanovich’s fiction. If so, I’ve got plenty of reading to do. (Of course, it also remains to be seen if Hot Six is too representative of the rest of the series…)

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