Sara Paretsky Essay - Critical Essays


Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski series simultaneously works within and comments on the conventions of the hard-boiled genre by changing the gender of the central character. The tough, hard-boiled detective, who operates alone, outside traditional law-and-order systems, is a mythic figure of American folklore. He is typically envisioned as Humphrey Bogart, wearing a raincoat and a slouch hat, squinting over a perpetually smoking cigarette. Warshawski is carved from the Sam Spade tradition—with a few humorous references to Nancy Drew—and yet her gender makes for a very different reading of the same character type. When the hard-boiled characteristics are assigned to a woman—traditionally women figure in this detective genre merely as the private eye’s love interest or the femme fatale—the device can offer insights into the nature of gender roles and a refreshing new slant on the genre’s conventions.

Warshawski’s gender adds another dimension to the detective’s traditional marginality with respect to dominant legal and social systems. While the myth of the male hero allows for the individual man to buck the system, or at least step outside it by riding off on his lone horse into the sunset, women are generally expected to remain protected by, if not subservient to, the dictates of law and order. Warshawski is a member in good standing of the Illinois bar but gave up her career in the district attorney’s office to work alone.

Warshawski’s choice to strike out on her own continually infuriates police lieutenant Bobby Mallory, a character who serves several functions in Paretsky’s narratives. On one hand, the Mallory character is relatively predictable within the conventions of the genre. He is Warshawski’s link with the system; he resents her intrusions on his cases, yet admires her ability to get the results that his position keeps him from obtaining.

In addition to being the aggravated law enforcement officer, Mallory serves now and then as a father figure for Warshawski. The usually predictable relationship is given a new dimension by the gender considerations. Mallory worked with Warshawski’s father, who was an officer on the Chicago police force. Mallory glowers paternally at Warshawski when she gets involved in cases that seem inevitably to cross his desk, but his anger is a mixture of professional jealousy and fatherly concern.

Paretsky’s novels often open with seductive descriptions of the Chicago locale in which Warshawski thrives, evoking the special relationship between the detective and the city for which Raymond Chandler, in his tributes to Los Angeles, is famous. Most of the Warshawski series takes place in the heat of the summer. The steamy atmosphere tends to intensify Warshawski’s interactions with other characters and her own dogged pursuit of her cases. The details of the Chicago setting help to particularize the Warshawski series and lend it veracity. Each story is a compelling travelogue into the intricacies of one of Chicago’s many locales: finance networks (Indemnity Only, 1982), shipyards (Deadlock, 1984), Catholic dioceses in ethnic neighborhoods (Killing Orders, 1985), and suburban hospital settings (Bitter Medicine, 1987). The mix of fiction and fact in Warshawski’s wry descriptions provides Paretsky with an outlet for the acute, sardonic social observations in which she specializes.

The Warshawski character is crafted with the mix of cynicism and compassion that marks the best of the private investigators. Her specialty is financial crime, a venue that has allowed Paretsky to comment on corrupt bureaucracies and the machinations of those in the higher strata of the social order. Indemnity Only centers on an insurance hoax perpetrated by the officers of Ajax Insurance, a company later involved with illegal dealings and intrigue in the shipping industry in Deadlock. The suspect dealings of Ajax come under investigation again in Total Recall, when payment is denied to a widow at the same time that the unscrupulous mishandling of policies belonging to Holocaust victims comes to light.

In 1992’s Guardian Angel Warshawski unearths a complex bond-parking conspiracy, in Tunnel Vision there is a money-laundering scheme involving Iraq, and Hard Time takes on the subject of the privatization of American prisons and the corruption and abuse—all for the sake of financial gain—it affords. However, all these novels deal with a great deal more than financial crime, for the financial crimes usually reside at the nexus of many other social ills—homicide, spouse and child abuse, exploitation of illegal immigrants, homelessness, corrupt politicians, venal lawyers, and cruelty to animals. In Fire Sale (2005), Warshawski investigates big-box retailer By-Smart (a very thinly veiled Wal-Mart), contrasting the mind-boggling wealth acquired in an ethical vacuum with the lives of Chicago’s poorest.

Although Warshawski frequently deals with the chief executive officers of large corporations, her clients tend to be middle to lower class. Her own financial status is best described as “down at the heels”—her office is in an old, dimly lit building near the financial district in downtown Chicago. The elevator to her fourth-floor suite rarely works, and the building lobby is often home to street people. Warshawski’s setup is reminiscent of Toby Peters’s office locale in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s detective series. Warshawski’s lack of a generous income does not cramp her style. She can afford the Johnny Walker she regularly orders at the Golden Glow, a serious drinker’s bar in the south Loop run by a dignified black woman named Sal. Paretsky’s attention to detail helps to build a convincing portrait of Warshawski as a woman comfortable in her surroundings, one who knows exactly what she needs and who can navigate through the obstacles...

(The entire section is 2433 words.)