From The Record, October 13, 2017 –Vincent Cuddihy
Another birthday present I received this year was Fallout (2017) by Chicago-based author Sara Paretsky. This is the 18th installment in the V.I. Warshawski series, which began in 1982. While browsing my shelves, I found a copy of Fire Sale (2005)—probably a gift from the same friend. These are but two out of the ten books in this series which are available at the Lennoxville Library (including one in large print!). Another four are available through ILL. I thought it would be fun to look at both of these works to see how the main character has changed (or not) in the intervening twelve years.
V.I. (Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawski (Vic to her friends) is a product of the mean streets of South Chicago. Her athletic abilities won her a basketball scholarship at the University of Chicago, where she eventually obtained a Law degree, unlike her creator, who holds both an MBA and a Ph.D. in History from that august institution. But now Vic lives in Lakeview, working full time as a private detective, which she has done from the beginning of the series.
In both stories, Vic starts out trying to do a favor for a friend and ends up being hired to look for missing persons. In both stories, she is looking for an oddly matched couple, so they should be pretty conspicuous. But in both stories, they seem to have vanished without a trace, leading Vic to fear the worst has happened. Her inquiries lead her to find dead bodies, but not those of the couples she has been engaged to find.
The two narratives take Vic into places that were Paretsky’s own stomping grounds. Fire Sale takes her back to South Chicago where Paretsky did social work during the 60s. Vic’s former basketball coach, who is dying of cancer, asks her to volunteer to coach her old school’s team. One of the players asks Vic to visit her mother, who has a problem that she wants help with. It turns out the factory where the mother works has been vandalized on several occasions. She fears that someone is trying to put the company out of business. Vic herself is badly injured when the factory blows up while she is investigating the premises.
Fallout takes Vic farther afield to Lawrence, Kansas. Paretsky grew up there because her father was a professor of Biology at the University of Kansas. This time the investigation is triggered by Vic’s cousin’s goddaughter, a Québecoise who plays hockey for Northwestern and has a friend whose cousin has disappeared. It turns out the missing cousin has been hired by an aging actress of some note to do a video of her life story, starting in Kansas where she grew up. No one has heard anything from either of them for several days, which gets Vic onto the road to the central plains.
Vic is invariably very quick to adopt conspiracy theories about why the people she is looking for have disappeared. But her instincts about who is conspiring to do what to whom are terrible…. Not only does this trait make her inefficient by sending her barking up wrong trees, but it also puts her in danger. One wonders how she can afford her medical bills on her earnings as a detective!
One of the charming features of these tales is Vic’s devotion to her dogs. They, in turn, are fiercely loyal to her, and sometimes help her uncover clues she could not have found on her own. Some friends, like her neighbor Mr. Contreras and her doctor Lotti stick with her for the twelve years. The men in her love life are another story.
An intriguing element in these adventures derives from Paretsky’s interest in small independent Christian churches. They play an important role in both stories, evincing in Vic considerable scepticism about the motives and beliefs of both the pastors and their parishioners. And Vic’s interactions with law enforcement officials are the source of some very witty dialogue.
On the whole, these mysteries are a good read. While Vic works hard at keeping in shape, she must be in her mid 50s by now, which makes some of her more athletic feats a bit hard to believe. We know Vic is getting older because Paretsky is careful to update her references to politicians, films, music and sports figures. In Fallout, the Cubs have just won the World Series.
Paretsky’s efforts have been well recognized by her peers. She is one of only four living writers who have received both the Edgar Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America (2011) and the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK (2002).