Strength of character
by Keith Taylor
I don't read enough detective fiction to get passionate about the nuances that distinguish different writers. I read it for fun, and I'm comfortable with my stereotypes. I think of British detective fiction as being quiet and conversational, with smart women detectives, not all of them professionals. American detective fiction seems male and darker and violent.
Which is why Sara Paretsky's books are so refreshing. Like all good detective writers, she needs a good detective, and Paretsky created one of the best a quarter century or so ago. She has kept coming back to the inimitable V. I. Warshawski, and I'm glad she has. Warshawski grew up the daughter of a cop in the tough ethnic neighborhoods of south Chicago, down where the ports and the factories run together into the marshes that bleed over into Indiana. She is comfortable living alone (although she enjoys her earthy pleasures), and she takes a punch, a shot, a sharp piece of glass in the shoulder, or any number of more exotic forms of pain with few complaints and very little hospital time.
And she knows Chicago, her city. The intimate knowledge of a gritty city is probably the next most important element of good detective writing, and Paretsky obviously knows and loves the length and breadth of hers. Her latest Warshawski novel, Fire Sale, spends most of its time down with the poor folks in south Chicago but moves easily up north to the neighborhoods of the very rich, or into Evanston, where Warshawski's latest boyfriend recovers from his war wounds in his comfortable flat, surrounded by interesting, international visitors.
Sara Paretsky also has an agenda. Again and again, she builds her novels around crimes that we often dismiss as "white collar." These crimes may start as clerical numbers games, but as their effects ripple into their community, bodies start to fall in the effort to protect corporate greed. In Fire Sale a gigantic chain of discount department
stores By-Smart, "the fifth largest corporation in America" (make whatever connections you feel like making, but I'm sure they would be only "coincidental") is owned by one self-satisfied and self-righteous family who will go to any lengths to protect their investments. Warshawski's effort to uncover those methods and their murderous consequences is what keeps the readers turning the pages of this novel.
The plot of Fire Sale is masterfully handled, and there is a wonderful cast of characters. The bad guys are really bad, even when they are immediately recognizable as types that dominate many communities. There is a girls' basketball team in a neglected high school that is filled with memorable young women who become directly involved in the action and violence that resolves the novel. Warshawski against her better judgment takes over as coach of these girls. As she has always been, V. I. Warshawski is absolutely the best thing in her novel: tough but lovable, a detective always willing to help the needy but never too far from her Smith & Wesson.
Paretsky reads from Fire Sale at Nicola's Books on Wednesday, July 6.
[Originally published in July, 2005.]