Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Book Review: 'Breakdown' by Sara Paretsky

Review by Susan Grigsby

It is not possible to overstate the influence that Sara Paretsky has had on American detective fiction. She took women out of the binders that restricted them to the roles of femme fatale or hapless victim into which they had been placed by earlier writers like Raymond Chandler. It was reading Raymond Chandler, and finding his portrayal of women to be one dimensional, and that dimension sexual, that prompted her to start thinking of other ways to include women in the genre. According to interviews, eight years later she created V.I. Warshawski.

As a detective, V.I.(Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawski is difficult to pigeonhole. Someone called her a medium-boiled detective, which is pretty close. She comes with a fondness for Scotch and an a fairly abrasive personality with which she seems to hold people at a distance. She is constantly on call for her friends and friends of friends, as well as relatives and their friends, unable to refuse a plea for help. Even when she tries.

She reminds me of an old friend that I worked with in the Chicago insurance industry. A south-sider, my friend also had that chip on the shoulder, that tough, street-smart image and sharp tongue that protected her like a suit of egg-shell armor. Loyalty was valued far above any other virtue and it was repaid tenfold from a heart that was as tender as it was protected.
Sara Paretsky was born in Iowa and raised in Kansas where, at the state university, she received her bachelor's degree in political science. She moved to Chicago in 1968 and eventually completed a PhD in history at the University of Chicago and an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.
A holder of the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement from the British Crime Writers, Sara Paretsky was named Ms Magazine's 1987 Woman of the Year for her role as founder of Sisters in Crime, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women writers of the genre.
Called “passionate” and “electrifying,” V.I. reflects her creator’s own passion for social justice. As a contributor to the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers, and a speaker at such venues as the Library of Congress and Oxford University, Paretsky is an impassioned advocate for those on society’s margins.  After chairing the school’s first Commission on the Status of Women as a Kansas undergraduate, Paretsky worked as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side during the turbulent race riots of 1966.  More recently, Paretsky served with then-state senator Obama on the board of Thresholds, which serves Chicago’s mentally ill homeless.  She has mentored teens in Chicago’s most troubled schools, and works closely with literacy and reproductive rights groups.
Married to a member of the University of Chicago’s Fermi Institute, Sara Paretsky lives on Chicago's South Side, within ten minutes of Lake Michigan, where she regularly runs with her Golden Retriever. Addicted to cappuccinos, she also admits a fondness for chocolate and a fear of cockroaches.

V.I. Warshawski has been on my radar since the 1991 movie of the same name, starring Kathleen Turner, was released. Having missed it then, I rented it over the weekend. Kathleen Turner is a perfect Warshawski and made watching the movie, which was otherwise only remarkable for the hair (mousse had newly gone mainstream), worthwhile. And I will always hear her voice as I continue my exploration of the further adventures of Vic, as she is known to her friends.
by Sara Paretsky
Published by Putnam Adult
January 3rd 2012
431 pages

Carmilla was a shape shifting raven that was featured in a series of YA novels that particularly appealed to pre-teen girls. A group of politically connected Chicago girls chose a night under a full moon, shrouded by clouds, to meet at Mount Moriah Cemetery to call forth the powers of the raven.
Tracking them down, following a panicked call from her cousin, Petra, Warshawski finds a dead body on a nearby tomb.
The girls include the daughter of an undocumented immigrant hotel worker, the daughter of a Democratic Senate candidate for the state of Illinois, and the granddaughter of one of the richest men in Chicago. The dead body belonged to a fairly corrupt private investigator.
The cast of characters in this complicated tale of family, love, revenge, jealousy and insanity is large, and includes a Glenn Beck/Bill O'Reilly right-wing blowhard who is the star in the lineup of a network seemingly dedicated to promoting the political interests of the GOP, including those of a certain Michelle-Bachman-type Senate candidate ("She thought the last time America had been a great country was the day before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation"), who is running against the mother of one of the girls in the graveyard. Naturally, that mother, the Democratic candidate, would love to see Warshawski drop the investigation into the murder of Miles Wuchnik, the detective whose body was discovered in the cemetery.
But Vic finds that she can't drop it because it appears that it may be connected to the attempted murder of a law school friend whom she was supposed to be meeting. The friend was pushed or fell from a balcony and is now in a coma, unable to tell Vic anything about what happened.
Obvious clues and red herrings abound, and a reader more familiar with Warshawski would probably identify the guilty party faster than a newcomer such as myself, but the pace of the story is so rapid and the dialogue so engaging that it didn't matter. And while I wasn't crazy about the ending, it was very entertaining.
This is number fifteen of what is sixteen novels in this long-running series. A couple of years ago I picked up the 30th anniversary edition of the first one, Indemnity, but found it (surprise) dated. It went back on my stack of books that were worth holding onto for another try later. It will get read, but first I want to read Hardball, which seems to be relevant today as people protest in Ferguson.
Chicago’s unique brand of ball is sixteen-inch slow pitch, played in leagues all over the city for more than a century. But in politics, in business, and in law enforcement, the game is hardball.
When V. I. Warshawski is asked to find a man who’s been missing for four decades, a search that she figured would be futile becomes lethal. Old skeletons from the city’s racially charged history, as well as haunting family secrets—her own and those of the elderly sisters who hired her—rise up to brush her back from the plate with a vengeance. A young cousin whom she’s never met arrives from Kansas City to work on a political campaign; a nun who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. dies without revealing crucial evidence; and on the city’s South Side, people spit when she shows up. Afraid to learn that her adored father might have been a bent cop, V. I. still takes the investigation all the way to its frightening end.
In a 2010 interview about the book with the UK Telegraph Sara Paretsky told this story:
"I have an African-American woman friend who was waiting at a bus stop recently. Suddenly a squad car pulled up and she was flung to the ground, her hands pinned behind her, because a filling station had been held up six blocks away, supposedly by a black man, and she was the first black person they saw. I don’t have any African-American friends who don’t have similar stories.”

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here