As with the previous book in the series, I feel a little ambivalent about this one. It was a fun read, but I remember reading the earlier books, enjoying the mystery aspects, laughing about the funny stuff until my belly hurt, and eagerly looking forward to the newest developments between Stephanie and Morelli and/or Ranger. Either I'm getting burned out, like I said, or the series is getting a tad stale. I do think this book had a less "recycled" feel than the last one, however.
This synopsis is slightly more general than usual. I don't give away the killers, or even the people behind the Rangeman-related thefts.
Stephanie, whose gun is more likely to be found in the cookie jar in her apartment than on her person, is an unlikely bounty hunter. However, for the most part she does ok. Her skips are often annoying, quirky, and slippery, but she can usually manage to catch them and take them in with the help of her knowledge of Trenton, N.J. and its residents. And maybe a taser, but only if all else fails.
As usual, Stephanie needs money, and the only way to get it is to actually catch the skips she's been assigned. She thinks she can handle some of them on her own (Lula, of course, tags along), but there are a few in her caseload who might just decide to send her corpse back to the bail bonds office. When Ranger asks her to help him out with a problem of his own, it's like a godsend - while she helps him with his problem, he'll help her catch her more dangerous skips.
So, what problem could possibly prompt the great Ranger to ask Stephanie for help? Well, somebody has been stealing from clients of Rangeman, Ranger's security firm. It looks like someone at Rangeman might be responsible, so now there's no one Ranger can really trust. Ranger brings Stephanie in because she tends to be able to get people to open up. Plus, she's lucky and stumbles across the solutions to mysteries a lot.
Meanwhile, Lula witnesses a celebrity chef getting beheaded, and suddenly she's the repeated target of the killers, who want to get rid of the one and only witness to their crime. Lula's not exactly the most helpful witness, so she decides that the best thing to do is to enter the barbecue contest the chef was going to enter. She figures that someone didn't want him to enter the contest, so she'll have the best chance of finding the killers on the contest grounds. Also, she figures she can win the contest and claim the million dollar prize. Does it phase her at all that she's never barbecued before and thinks that all there is to making barbecue sauce is adding some pepper to ketchup? Of course not, this is Lula we're talking about. When Grandma Mazur agrees to be her assistant and Stephanie gets roped into helping them out, you know it's going to be a disaster.
After a while, Lula seems to forget that the primary goal is to catch the killers - she really wants to win that prize money. It's too bad she has to make Stephanie and her family suffer through the results of her efforts at learning to barbecue. On the plus side, Lula's new cross-dressing fireman boyfriend (Tank is barely even mentioned in the book, so I guess it's over between him and Lula) is willing to help clean up Stephanie's kitchen and teach Lula some barbecuing secrets.
Although Stephanie is willing to help Lula out and even (reluctantly) give her a place to stay after the killers shoot up her (Lula's) door, Stephanie doesn't spend any time helping Lula find the killers. Instead, she helps Ranger and tries to catch her skips. With Ranger's help, she deals with her skips, and with Stephanie's help, Ranger catches the people stealing from his clients. Morelli, by the way, is not happy that Stephanie has been spending so much time around Ranger. However, Morelli and Stephanie are rarely together in this book - Morelli shows up each time after Lula gets attacked, and that's about it until the end of the book. Morelli and Stephanie are fighting. Stephanie says it's because he complained about all the junk (like olives) she lets get into the peanut butter, but I think her real problem is fear of commitment. Her annoyance with Morelli doesn't keep her from being jealous about Joyce Barnhardt, the bane of her existence, spending a lot of time with him.
Anyway, by the end of the book, Ranger's problems are resolved, Morelli and Stephanie have made up, and the chef's killers have been caught.
Despite the danger Lula is in (and she is in danger, even if the killers happen to be mostly inept), Stephenie doesn't really seem to care much. Instead of trying to hunt down the killers in order to keep her friend from being killed, Stephanie goes after her skips and helps Ranger - she tolerates Lula, but mostly she wants Lula out of her immediate space (her apartment, her parents' house). Maybe book after book of scary situations has made her less susceptible to fear. Maybe her emotional reactions aren't as strong when she isn't the target of killers (I could be wrong, but this might be the first book where that's the case). Or maybe she's finally had enough of Lula. I forget which book it was, but I remember one in which all of Stephanie's troubles boiled down to being Lula's fault. Ever since that book, I've had problems liking Lula. She's like a bull in a china shop. Occasionally, her larger than life attitude and behavior will help Stephanie out, but she's as likely to cause as many problems as she solves. If it weren't for the fact that it would've ruined the comedic tone, I might've wondered if Evanovich, too, had started to get tired of Lula and planned to kill her off in this book.
The title of the book seems to indicate that the big mystery is "who killed the celebrity chef," but I kept forgetting who had been killed. Lula got so into barbecuing that even I forgot the real reason why she was entering the contest. Instead, my attention was more on Stephanie and the work she was doing for Ranger. Unfortunately, Ranger's problem wasn't really all that interesting. Yes, the idea that someone could outsmart Ranger is interesting, as is the idea that it might be someone in Rangeman. However, investigating Ranger's problem mostly involved working on a computer and taking a look at the various properties. No one tried to blow Stephanie or Ranger up while they investigated. It was a pretty sedate investigation, with just a bit of emotional tension resulting from possibility that one of Ranger's employees was betraying him.
Several cars got destroyed, and I couldn't help but smile at the bit where Stephanie immediately got a phone call when her GPS was turned off. Her skips provided a bit of excitement, but I can barely even remember most of them - they weren't really the quirky characters that some of her skips in the past have been, although the paintball game was a little surreal and the elderly man who exposed himself (to the not-so-secret delight of several neighborhood women) was worth a bit of a laugh.
Overall, it was an ok book, but it felt a little tired.
Oh, and I should mention that Evanovich doesn't include the recipe for the barbecue sauce Lula's cross-dressing fireman boyfriend gives her. Maybe I'm just too used to all those "food mysteries" my mom reads, but the lack of a recipe was a little disappointing. I likely would have never tried it out, but the secret ingredient (blackberry jelly) intrigued me.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Cowboy Bebop (anime TV series) - Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter with a laid-back attitude, amazing fighting skills, and a dark past. He's partners with Jet Black, a former cop, and, as the series progresses, his group grows to include Faye Valentine (a sexy, tricky gambler who can't really remember her past) and Ed (a weird and cheerful young hacker). A lot of the episodes, especially the earlier ones, are mostly humorous and include a lot of fast, madcap action - those who liked the action and humorous aspects of Finger Lickin' Fifteen might like this series.
- Dying for Chocolate (book) by Diane Mott Davidson - This is the second book in a series. Goldy Bear, a caterer in Aspen Meadow, Colorado, decides to have a security system installed in her home after she receives renewed threats from her ex-husband. During the installation, she and her son Arch stay with a retired general and his wife, with Goldy working as a live-in cook. Goldy finds herself juggling two romantic relationships, but then one of the men ends up dead. Goldy becomes a suspect and must find out who the real killer is in order to clear her name. Remember how I mentioned "food mysteries" in my commentary? Well, while I know there are plenty of other food mystery writers, Davidson is always the first one that pops into my head when I think of them. Those who'd like another mystery involving food (this one comes with recipes!), a bit of romance, humor, and quirky characters might like this book and the Goldy Bear series in general.
- Agnes and the Hitman (book) by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer - Food writer and cookbook author Agnes Crandall is rescued during a break-in by a hitman sent by the mob to protect her (the guy who broke in was actually after Agnes's dog, but whatever). Shane, the hitman, turns out to be a basically decent guy who helps Agnes out with her rat of a fiance, the people who keep trying to take her dog, and all the problems that crop up due to the fortune hidden right under Agnes's nose. Those who'd like another mystery with a bit of action, a bit of romance, humor, and quirky characters might like this.