Plum jobs for a woman of parts

With her witty bounty-hunter, Janet Evanovich has a bestselling mix of crime, humour - and good sex
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The Independent Culture

The Four Seasons Hotel near Park Lane, where a King Superior double with marble bathroom costs £315 per night, has got a message badly wrong. "Mrs Evanovich won't be back for another hour." Yes she will, and here she is, a small intrepid figure advancing through bristling tiers of floral architecture. The Four Seasons muddles up her request for tea, and we manage to get a bottle of mineral water only as a special favour.

The Four Seasons Hotel near Park Lane, where a King Superior double with marble bathroom costs £315 per night, has got a message badly wrong. "Mrs Evanovich won't be back for another hour." Yes she will, and here she is, a small intrepid figure advancing through bristling tiers of floral architecture. The Four Seasons muddles up her request for tea, and we manage to get a bottle of mineral water only as a special favour.

Maybe they think the clientÿle is so rich no one will notice. If so, it's a bad mistake: Janet Evanovich may have received near-million-dollar film rights for her hilarious creation, the New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, but she comes from basic American stock: "my grandparents came over as indentured servants." She was the first of her generation to go to college (New Jersey State) and says that "I'm a Jersey girl, except when I lived in New Jersey I had big hair. Now I live in New Hampshire I have small hair."

She laughs cheerfully at the pathetic amounts of money British crimewriters make. When I suggest that, perhaps, American popular authors are more respected, out comes pure Stephanie Plum: "Actually, I think we get no respect. But we make so much damned money we just don't care." Her husband Peter, a former professor of mathematics, and her grown-up son and daughter, all work for Evanovich Incorporated, the family business formed from the success of her books.

Stephanie - her hamster, her gun-toting Grandma Mazer and the whole eccentric, warm-hearted Polish-Italian community in which she moves - has certainly achieved a huge following. In the first of the series, One for the Money, she had lost her job at a tacky lingerie store, her car was on the brink of re-possession, and her apartment was fast becoming furniture-free. Her cousin Vinnie runs a bail-bond company, bringing in shady characters, and if Stephanie went to work for him she would get a bounty for every criminal she delivered duly caught and trussed.

Now, over the course of six books, Steph has usually got her man by some unlooked-for accident, forgetting her gun, splitting her jeans and totalling her transport in the process. But a lot of the detail is based on fact.

Grandma Mazer's favourite occupation is going to view the beautified deceased at funeral parlours (shades of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One). "I lived in this little Danish community, South River," Evanovich recalls, "and we didn't have a lot of recreation, but we had these really good funeral parlours, and ladies would come over in the afternoons and, five nights out of seven, they would go to viewings. It was the social hub of South River."

So how did Janet Evanovich come to hit on the role of a bounty hunter for her detective character? "The protagonist has a lot of personal freedom," she explains, "doesn't work from nine to five, doesn't wear cop shoes. A bounty hunter has a certain cachet - it's romanticised to some extent. Stephanie does it because she needs to pay the rent, but she is not the world's best bounty-hunter."

Evanovich duly did her research, hanging out with tough hunters, but her heroine is pretty non-violent. "That's intentional. The States has a gun culture which I don't fit into. I come at it from the other point-of-view, a satirical take on the American gun culture. In one of my books, I have women sitting in the beauty-parlour comparing guns. What I do is social comedy, it's docu-comedy."

There's plenty of action, and also sex. Stephanie frequently gets her rocks off with gorgeous cop-turned-outlaw Joe Morelli. Unusually for the crime genre, it's good sex, the kind women enjoy, and I asked about the secret of successful sex writing.

"I started as a romance writer. I can remember the first time that I wrote a sex scene and I was just mortified that I'd actually put it down on paper, and I didn't want my mother to read it.

"There are two things that make my sex scenes fun. I think the chase is always the fun part - when the man and woman actually come together, there's a certain amount of tension that's missing. The uncertainty and the hunt: that's a very important part of writing a sex scene. And then you have to have honesty in it. The truth is that most of us approach sex wondering if we've shaved our legs that morning, and the first time it isn't this magical thing when you consume each other with fires of passion. Most of the time you're wondering if the damned thing's going to fit. Am I going to be any good? Is he going to be any good? So I put some comic relief in here."

It's what she does with every topic, and the female wisecracking gives her books much of their appeal. "I get a lot of mail from people who have had really hard times," she says, "from men and women who've lost their partners, from woman who've had mastectomies and other cancer survivors. We know now that laughter is healing, and a lot of oncology departments feel that if their patients are going into chemotherapy and can laugh and feel positive, that's medicine as well."

I asked her about a current row going on in the British Crime Writers Association. David Peace, the author of two bleak novels set at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, has criticised the Association's award for a comic crime novel, claiming it's absurd to create such a false picture of reality. Her reaction? "Get a life, David! I think it's very important to take a comic approach. If we can laugh at something, we can face it."

Are there any issues she doesn't think suited to comedy? There are racial stereotypes in her books, albeit affectionate ones, and in Hot Six, there's a Pakistani cop, Habib, who appears as an extreme parody of Islamic attitudes ("Filthy American dog. You are the son of a camel-walla. May your testicles fall off").

I asked her if she had any qualms about portraying Muslims or blacks. "There's a point when you move into something that's no longer positive. You are paying such attention to political correctness that you can't laugh at situations any more. So when I created this book I thought: I just don't want to pander to that. I don't want to insult anyone, I don't want to cause anybody any pain. But everyone in this series gets insulted equally. I was writing this book and I thought who haven't I insulted yet? I haven't insulted Pakistanis. Why should they be left out? I've insulted Polish people, Italian people, I've insulted Wasps. I haven't insulted very many Asians."

"You don't feel it's contributing to disharmony to do that? I asked. She answered emphatically. "No, not at all, I think that humour is a real equaliser."

As I tried to pay for the mineral water, the Four Seasons (Junior Suite, £570 per night) tried to charge me for a purely fictitious breakfast. I left a 20p tip. Grandma Mazer would have trashed the joint.

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