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 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.
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families continue to struggle for the American dream -- though today the Italian and Hungarian immigrants have largely been replaced by immigrants from Guatemala and Costa Rica.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.
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.
"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.
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