July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

By Janet Evanovich


It was about time Stephanie Plum left the Burg. Not for good, mind you: The colorful section of Trenton, N.J., home to hunky cop Joe Morelli, randy Grandma Mazur, loyal hamster Rex and enough slippery lowlifes to keep a bounty hunter on her toes, has provided a fertile setting for Evanovich’s screwball thrillers for almost a decade. But an excursion to Las Vegas—almost but not quite as tacky as the Burg—helps breathe new life into To the Nines, Evanovich’s sharpest, funniest, sexiest entry in the series since the early days. On the track of a vanished Indian immigrant who worked for a slot-machine-parts manufacturer, Stephanie and her crew head for Sin City in a deliriously comic interlude. Meanwhile plus-size sidekick Lula tries out a no-carb diet (“I can eat meat until I grow a tail and moo,” she marvels), buff bounty-hunting pal Ranger sorely tests Stephanie’s commitment to monogamy, and oh yeah, as ever, someone’s trying to kill Stephanie. The Burg’s answer to Lucille Ball seems slightly less bumbling than usual, even managing to apprehend a bail jumper coated head-to-foot in Vaseline. The bad guys don’t stand a chance. (St. Martin’s, $25.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Perfect Nine

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