Reared in Kansas within a large family that was liberal and socially activist—except where concerning the roles of girls and women—Sara Paretsky began creating heroines and stories for herself early on. Although her brothers were sent to college, she was sent to secretarial school, so she worked to put herself through college on her own. She later settled in Chicago, the city that provides the generous, colorful details of her novels’ settings. She earned a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago but has no formal training in fiction writing. She was working as an executive at a large insurance company when she began writing detective fiction; this background is apparent in the insurance company-related plots and settings of her first three novels.
Paretsky credits the women’s movement of the 1960’s with helping her see that she could “occupy public space,” and she later used the visibility afforded by her success in the socially conscious tradition in which she was reared. A founding member of Sisters in Crime, she mentors high school students in downtown Chicago and has endowed scholarships for students in the sciences and arts. Dorothy L. Sayers’s attention to relationships and class issues has influenced Paretsky’s work, but her novels replace Sayers’s typically lettered style with a more colloquial, vigorously American and contemporary assessment of relationships and of women’s social roles. One of her reasons for creating the V. I. Warshawski series was to portray a woman character freed from stereotypically passive feminine traits.
Paretsky hit a writer’s slump after Tunnel Vision (1994). During this time, she “dug out of a drawer” a number of unpublished Warshawski short stories and collected them as Windy City Blues (1995). Taking a break from detective fiction, over the objections of her publisher, Paretsky wrote Ghost Country (1998), a novel about Chicago’s homeless. Readers welcomed Warshawski back in Hard Time (1999), but Total Recall (2001) suffered both from a general pall inflicted by the September 11 terrorist attacks and from many fans’ impatience with the intrusion of larger political issues into the business of murder, a trend that accelerated as Paretsky became increasingly alarmed by the policies of the George W. Bush administration. Her concerns are expressed in the meditative memoir Writing in an Age of Silence (2007).