Stephanie Plum: Trenton's Scrappy Bounty Hunter

The Lower Trenton Bridge over the Delaware River reads 'Trehton Makes. The World Takes."

hide captionThe slogan "Trenton Makes, The World Takes" spans the Lower Trenton Bridge above the Delaware River. Author Janet Evanovich grew up in South River, N.J., and chose to set her best-selling thriller in the neighborhoods of Trenton.

Mel Evans/AP

When the Garden State's seediest crooks skip bail, it's up to lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter Stephanie Plum to track 'em down. Novelist Janet Evanovich sets her satirical thrillers in Trenton, N.J., a city Evanovich remembers from her youth. In her best-selling novels, she portrays neighborhoods with strong ethnic identities, a lot of attitude — and plenty of food.

Plum is a scrappy if somewhat inept bounty hunter, and she'll eat anything, anytime. Evanovich admits she has her heroine's sweet tooth — and proves it as she surveys the offerings at the Italian Peoples Bakery in Trenton: "There's apricot fingers ... shortbread ... chocolate chip snowballs ... lemon bon bons ... nut crescents ... strawberry linzer tarts." And, of course, cannolis — a Trenton specialty.

A mural painted on the side of Italian People's Bakery in the Trenton neighborhood of Chambersburg. i i

hide captionA mural painted on the side of Italian Peoples Bakery in the Chambersburg neighborhood of Trenton, N.J., states: 'We Serve Only The Best.' Evanovich drew inspiration from this local institution for her novels — it appears in the form of the fictional Tasty Pastry Shop.

Courtesy of Jim Carlucci
A mural painted on the side of Italian People's Bakery in the Trenton neighborhood of Chambersburg.

A mural painted on the side of Italian Peoples Bakery in the Chambersburg neighborhood of Trenton, N.J., states: 'We Serve Only The Best.' Evanovich drew inspiration from this local institution for her novels — it appears in the form of the fictional Tasty Pastry Shop.

Courtesy of Jim Carlucci

The Italian Peoples Bakery has been around for four generations in the city's Italian section — Chambersburg, better known as the "Burg." This bakery inspired the Tasty Pastry shop, where Plum lost her virginity behind the chocolate eclair case with her on-again, off-again cop boyfriend, Joe Morelli. (Despite her fondness for junk food, Plum's a babe, in a tomboyish kind of way.)

Evanovich decided to locate her series about Stephanie Plum in Trenton years ago, when her father was hospitalized nearby. On visits, she'd take walks around the Burg.

"I would just wander for hours, and I just loved this bakery," Evanovich says. "When I was taking a break and I was feeling bad about my dad, I always felt happy in here."

She fell in love with the area during that time. The Burg reminded her of the tightknit, blue-collar community where she grew up, in nearby South River. It's the kind of place where people sit on their front porches and know their neighbors. Evanovich wanted that kind of setting in her books — but the Burg also had that inner-city edge, which was good for plots.

"I thought it had everything that I needed," Evanovich explains. "It was close to crime, but it was kind of a satellite to the crime."

The author — who looks a little Stephanie-like herself, in sneakers, blue jeans and a pink NASCAR cap — heads down a side street, lined with tidy duplexes. She says this is a place where families continue to struggle for the American dream — though today the Italian and Hungarian immigrants have largely been replaced by immigrants from Guatemala and Costa Rica.

"As with any emerging neighborhood, when you get a group of immigrants, no matter where they come from, there's always a certain amount of pride in their new country, and I think you see that here," Evanovich says.

American flags stick out from several front porches, and the noontime bells of St. Joachim's Catholic Church play "America the Beautiful."

Trenton has places and people you don't find just anywhere. This city is a little quirky — perfect for Stephanie and her slapstick adventures. She has a penchant for accidentally blowing up cars in her pursuit of some sleazy characters.

In fact, everyone in these books is a character — her sidekick, Lula, is a flamboyant ex-hooker. Her Grandma Mazur carries a gun. And, of course, there are the cops.

A residential street in Trenton i i

hide captionEvanovich says the Chambersburg neighborhood in Trenton has tightknit charm and an inner-city edge — a perfect setting for crime fiction.

Pam Fessler/NPR
A residential street in Trenton

Evanovich says the Chambersburg neighborhood in Trenton has tightknit charm and an inner-city edge — a perfect setting for crime fiction.

Pam Fessler/NPR

Joe Juniak, head of the real-life Trenton Police Department's detective bureau, has been friends with Evanovich for years. He wears a black T-shirt and a silver chain with a cross around his neck — and carries a Glock 40. He's made frequent appearances in the Stephanie Plum series. First as a cop, then police chief, mayor, congressman — and even "Emperor of the Universe." It's his reward for guiding the author through the real world of the Trenton Police Department.

At police headquarters, Juniak passes by the place where a bounty hunter like Stephanie might turn in one of her captures — or "skips," as they're called. "We come to the back of the police station here," Juniak explains, "escort the prisoner through this little lobby here and into our little holding cages."

The walls of the holding cages are grease-stained from all the people who've sat here, handcuffed to the benches, over the years.

Juniak says some of the more colorful crooks have ended up in the Stephanie Plum books — like the bicycle-riding thief they arrested who wore a Nixon mask and carried a shotgun. Or "Lucky Lou," who'll be in an upcoming book.

Author Janet Evanovich i i

hide captionAuthor Janet Evanovich has written 16 novels for her Stephanie Plum series. The latest is Sizzling Sixteen.

Pam Fessler/NPR
Author Janet Evanovich

Author Janet Evanovich has written 16 novels for her Stephanie Plum series. The latest is Sizzling Sixteen.

Pam Fessler/NPR

"He only had one leg," Juniak says. "Broke into a shoe store ... and all the shoe boxes were all around and half of 'em only had the right shoe in there. So basically all the guys on the street knew about who Lucky Lou was, and he ends up here in our lobby and he goes, 'Well, how did you know it was me?' And you can't make that up."

Evanovich says her goal is just to make her readers smile.

"I mean, they don't have to be laughing out loud," she says. "And I don't expect the smile to last all day. But I think of myself as ... the writer who makes people happy for a little while."

Although a lot of people might think that Trenton's good for a few laughs, Evanovich pokes fun fondly. She says what she loves most about this place is that people don't takes themselves too seriously.

Excerpt: 'Eleven On Top'

Eleven On Top
Eleven On Top
By Janet Evanovich
Paperback, 368 pages
St. Martin's Press
List price: $7.99

My name is Stephanie Plum. When I was eighteen I got a job working a hot dog stand on the boardwalk on the Jersey shore. I worked the last shift at Dave's Dogs, and I was supposed to start shutting down a half hour before closing so I could clean up for the day crew. We did chili dogs, cheese dogs, kraut dogs, and bean-topped barking dogs. We grilled them on a big grill with rotating rods. Round and round the rods went all day long, turning the dogs.

Dave Loogie owned the dog stand and came by every night to lock the stand down. He checked the garbage to make sure nothing good was thrown away, and he counted the dogs that were left on the grill.

"You gotta plan ahead," Dave told me every night. "You got more than five dogs left on the grill when we close, I'm gonna fire your ass and hire someone with bigger tits."

So every night, fifteen minutes before closing, before Dave showed up, I ate hot dogs. Not a good way to go when you're working at the shore nights and on the beach in a skimpy bathing suit by day. One night I ate fourteen hot dogs. Okay, maybe it was only nine, but it felt like fourteen. Anyway, it was too many hot dogs. Well hell, I needed the job.

For years Dave's Dogs took the number-one slot on my list of all-time crappy jobs held. This morning, I decided my present position had finally won the honor of replacing Dave's Dogs. I'm a bounty hunter. A bond enforcement agent, if you want to make me sound more legitimate. I work for my cousin Vinnie in his bail bonds office in the Chambersburg section of Trenton. At least I used to work for my cousin Vinnie. Thirty seconds ago, I quit. I handed in the phony badge I bought off the Net. I gave back my cuffs. And I dropped my remaining open files on Connie's desk.

Vinnie writes the bonds. Connie shuffles the paperwork. My sidekick, Lula, files when the mood strikes her. And an incredibly sexy, incredibly handsome badass named Ranger and I hunt down the morons who don't show up for trial. Until today. As of thirty seconds ago, all the morons got transferred to Ranger's list.

"Give me a break," Connie said. "You can't quit. I've got a stack of open files."

"Give them to Ranger."

"Ranger doesn't do the low bonds. He only takes the high-risk cases."

"Give them to Lula."

Lula was standing hand on hip, watching me spar with Connie. Lula's a size-sixteen black woman squashed into size-ten leopard print spandex. And the weird thing is, in her own way, Lula looks pretty good in the animal spandex.

"Hell yeah," Lula said. "I could catch them sonsabitches. I could hunt down their asses good. Only I'm gonna miss you," she said to me. "What are you gonna do if you don't work here? And what brought this on?"

"Look at me!" I said. "What do you see?"

"I see a mess," Lula said. "You should take better care of yourself."

"I went after Sam Sporky this morning."

"Melon-head Sporky?"

"Yeah. Melon-head. I chased him through three yards. A dog tore a hole in my jeans. Some crazy old lady shot at me. And I finally tackled Sporky behind the Tip Top Cafe."

"Looks like it was garbage day," Lula said. "You don't smell too good. And you got something looks like mustard all over your ass. Least I hope that's mustard."

"There were a bunch of garbage bags at the curb and Melon-head rolled me into them. We made sort of a mess. And then when I finally got him in cuffs, he spit on me!"

"I imagine that's the glob of something stuck in your hair?"

"No. He spit on my shoe. Is there something in my hair?"

Lula gave an involuntary shiver.

"Sounds like a normal day," Connie said. "Hard to believe you're quitting because of Melon-head."

Truth is, I don't exactly know why I was quitting. My stomach feels icky when I get up in the morning. And I go to bed at night wondering where my life is heading. I've been working as a bounty hunter for a while now and I'm not the world's best. I barely make enough money to cover my rent each month. I've been stalked by crazed killers, taunted by naked fat men, firebombed, shot at, spat at, cussed at, chased by humping dogs, attacked by a flock of Canadian honkers, rolled in garbage, and my cars get destroyed at an alarming rate.

And maybe the two men in my life add to the icky feeling in my stomach. They're both Mr. Right. And they're both Mr. Wrong. They're both a little scary. I wasn't sure if I wanted a relationship with either of them. And I hadn't a clue how to choose between them. One wanted to marry me, sometimes. His name was Joe Morelli and he was a Trenton cop. Ranger was the other guy, and I wasn't sure what he wanted to do with me beyond get me naked and put a smile on my face.

Plus, there was the note that got slipped under my door two days ago. i'm back. What the heck did that mean? And the follow-up note tacked to my windshield. did you think i was dead?

My life is too weird. It's time for a change. Time to get a more sensible job and sort out my future.

Connie and Lula shifted their attention from me to the front door. The bonds office is located on Hamilton Avenue. It's a small two-room storefront setup with a cluttered storage area in the back, behind a bank of file cabinets. I didn't hear the door open. And I didn't hear footsteps. So either Connie and Lula were hallucinating or else Ranger was in the room.

Ranger is the mystery man. He's a half head taller than me, moves like a cat, kicks ass all day long, only wears black, smells warm and sexy, and is 100 percent pure perfectly toned muscle. He gets his dark complexion and liquid brown eyes from Cuban ancestors. He was Special Forces, and that's about all anyone knows about Ranger. Well hell, when you smell that good and look that good, who cares about anything else, anyway?

I can usually feel Ranger standing behind me. Ranger doesn't ordinarily leave any space between us. Today, Ranger was keeping his distance. He reached around me and dropped a file and a body receipt on Connie's desk.

"I brought Angel Robbie in last night," he said to Connie. "You can mail the check to RangeMan."

RangeMan is Ranger's company. It's located in an office building in center city and specializes in security systems and fugitive apprehension.

"I got big news," Lula said to Ranger. "I've been promoted to bounty hunter on account of Stephanie just quit."

Ranger picked a couple strands of sauerkraut off my shirt and pitched them into Connie's wastebasket. "Is that true?"

"Yes," I said. "I quit. I'm done fighting crime. I've rolled in garbage for the last time."

"Hard to believe," Ranger said.

"I'm thinking of getting a job at the button factory," I told him. "I hear they're hiring."

"I don't have a lot of domestic instincts," Ranger said to me, his attention fixing on the unidentifiable glob of goo in my hair, "but I have a real strong urge to take you home and hose you down."

I went dry mouthed. Connie bit into her lower lip, and Lula fanned herself with a file.

"I appreciate the offer," I told him. "Maybe some other time."

"Babe," Ranger said on a smile. He nodded to Lula and Connie and left the office.

No one said anything until he drove off in his shiny black Porsche Turbo.

"I think I wet my pants," Lula said. "Was that one of them double entendres?"

Excerpted from Eleven On Top by Janet Evanovich. Copyright 2006 by Janet Evanovich. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.

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