Stephanie Plum: Trenton's Scrappy Bounty Hunter 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 best-selling satirical thrillers in Trenton, N.J., a city Evanovich remembers from her youth.
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Stephanie Plum: Trenton's Scrappy Bounty Hunter

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Stephanie Plum: Trenton's Scrappy Bounty Hunter

Stephanie Plum: Trenton's Scrappy Bounty Hunter

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Residents of New Jersey, who can be a little sensitive about their state's image, will just have to forgive us this morning, because we are going to New Jersey as we begin the latest installment of our ongoing series, Crime in the City. We talk to crime novelists about their work and about the cities that they write about.

Trenton is home to the satirical thrillers by Janet Evanovich. Her heroine is bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. It's her job to catch some of the Garden State's seediest crooks when they skip bail. The action takes place in a city that Evanovich remembers from her youth, a city with strong ethnic neighborhoods and a lot of attitude.

NPR's own Jersey girl, Pam Fessler, takes us there.

PAM FESSLER: Okay, to be honest, this story is largely about food. Stephanie Plum, who's a scrappy, somewhat inept bounty hunter, will eat anything, anytime - especially sweets, which is why our first stop in Trenton has to be.

Ms. JANET EVANOVICH (Crime Novelist): Italian People's Bakery.

FESSLER: Where else? says Janet Evanovich. The writer admits she has her heroine's sweet tooth.

Ms. EVANOVICH: Yum.

FESSLER: Evanovich guides me past rows and rows of donuts, cupcakes, pastries, cookies.

Ms. EVANOVICH: There's apricot fingers, shortbread. There's chocolate chip snowballs, lemon bonbons, nut crescents. Nut crescents are very - you have to have a nut crescent. Strawberry Linzer tarts. I love them.

FESSLER: And, of course, cannolis - a Trenton specialty. We see one chocolate one, with the filling oozing out both ends, up over the shell.

Ms. EVANOVICH: That's a kind of cannoli that - that is really a Jersey cannoli, I think.

FESSLER: It's like over the top, right?

Ms. EVANOVICH: What the hell is that? It's got a tongue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATT GUAGLIARDO (Owner, Italian People's Bakery): Janet, how are you? Nice to meet you. You always write about our bakery, so I at least can say hi.

Ms. EVANOVICH: I know. I know.

Mr. GUAGLIARDO: I'm Matt

FESSLER: Matt Guagliardo, his great-grandparents started baking here 75 years ago, in the city's Italian section, Chambersburg - better known as the Burg. It's where the fictional Stephanie Plum was born. In fact, 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.

Mr. GUAGLIARDO: Can I ask, what made you start writing about us?

FESSLER: Evanovich says it started years ago, when her father was hospitalized nearby. On visits, she'd take walks around the Burg.

Ms. EVANOVICH: I would just wander for hours and I just loved this bakery. It had, you know, when I was taking a break and I was feeling bad about my dad, I always felt happy in here.

REEVES: And she fell in love with the area. The Burg reminded her of the tight-knit blue-collar community where she grew up, in nearby South River, where people sit on their front porches and know their neighbors. Evanovich wanted that kind of place in her books. But the Burg also had that nice inner-city edge, which was good for plots.

Ms. EVANOVICH: I thought it had everything that I needed. It was close to crime, but it was kind of, you know, a satellite to the crime.

FESSLER: The author, who looks a little Stephanie-like herself in sneakers, blue jeans and a pink NASCAR cap, takes me down a side street, lined with tidy duplexes. She says this is a place where families struggle for the American dream, even today when the Italians and Hungarians have been replaced by Guatemalans and Costa Ricans.

American flags stick out from several front porches.

Ms. EVANOVICH: 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, you know, in their new country - and I think you see that here.

(Soundbite of church bells, "America the Beautiful")

FESSLER: And you hear it, too, in the noontime bells of Saint Joachim's Catholic Church.

(Soundbite of church bells, "America the Beautiful")

FESSLER: Trenton has things 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.

Unidentified Man #1: You carrying a gun?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Is it loaded?

Mr. JOE JUNIAK (Commander, Criminal Investigations Bureau, Trenton Police Department): I dont know. I haven't checked it in a while.

Unidentified Man #1: Are you loaded? Are you loaded?

FESSLER: It's been an hour since we hit the bakery. So we've stopped for lunch at Candela's Pizzeria, right outside the city, where they serve another Trenton specialty, tomato pies.

The guy with the gun is Joe Juniak, head of the Trenton Police Department's detective bureau. He and Evanovich are old friends.

Ms. EVANOVICH: So what are you carrying these days?

Mr. JUNIAK: Glock 40.

FESSLER: Besides a Glock 40, he's wearing a black T-shirt and a silver chain with a cross around his neck. Juniak has made frequent appearances in the Stephanie Plum series, first as a cop, then police chief, mayor, congressman, even Emperor of the Universe. It's his reward for guiding the author through the real world of the Trenton Police Department.

Mr. JUNIAK: This is what we call the Sally Port(ph) area. This is where we'll back up a car....

FESSLER: At police headquarters, Juniak shows us the place where a bounty hunter like Stephanie might turn in one of her captures, or skips, as they're called.

Mr. JUNIAK: We come to the back of the police station here; escort the prisoner through this little lobby here, into our little holding cages.

FESSLER: And as you can imagine, those holding cages are just lovely. The walls are grease-stained from all the people who've sat here, handcuffed to the benches. 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.

Mr. JUNIAK: Or Lucky Lou.

FESSLER: Who'll be in an upcoming book.

Mr. JUNIAK: He only had one leg, broke into a shoe store - a sporting good store.

FESSLER: You know where this is going, right?

Mr. JUNIAK: And all the shoe boxes are all around, and half of them only had the right shoe in there. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUNIAK: ...basically all the guys on the street knew about who Lucky Lou was. And he ends up here in our lobby. He goes, Well, how did you know it was me? And you can't make that up.

And this is Delores. This is Susan. This is Janet Evanovich

DELORES: Hi. I dont work in...

FESSLER: The writer greets some of her fans at the police station before we head to our final stop - of course it involves food. Whenever Stephanie and Lula are stuck on a case, which is all the time, they get fried chicken at a dive called Cluck-In-A Bucket. I've heard there's a real place nearby that might be a good match, although Evanovich is skeptical.

Ms. EVANOVICH: Is it really, there's a Cluck-U Chicken chain?

FESSLER: That's right. Cluck-U Chicken, right outside city limits. We pull up to a bright yellow building, with purple and red trim.

Ms. EVANOVICH: Yeah, but they don't have a big chicken on a rotating pole. It doesn't count.

FESSLER: Okay, so Cluck-U doesn't have a rotating chicken like Cluck-In-A-Bucket. But it does have a picture of a bird in a track suit. Doesn't that count? After all, Evanovich says her goal is just to make her readers smile.

Ms. EVANOVICH: I mean, they don't have to be laughing out loud. And I don't expect the smile to last all day. But I think of myself as being - I'm the writer who makes people happy for a little while.

FESSLER: And while lots of people might think that Trenton is good for a few laughs, Evanovich does so fondly. She says what she loves most about this place, is that people don't takes themselves too seriously.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

INSKEEP: The series is called Crime in the City. We do it every summer and we're going to continue, as long as there's crime and cities. We continue tomorrow with a trip to the resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

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