Sara Paretsky 1947-
American mystery writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Paretsky's career through 1995.
Paretsky is part of a school of female detective writers that subverts the genre of the hard-boiled detective novel to include a feminist perspective. By making Victoria Warshawski a strong, independent character, Paretsky breathes new life into the mystery genre, bringing feminist themes to what has traditionally been a field dominated by male writers. Unlike her male predecessors in the genre, such as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe, private-eye Warshawski also shows an emotional vulnerability that is not commonly evident in earlier detetive fiction. While Paretsky has created her own version of the typical mystery novel, her work retains many of the traditional mystery conventions, including fast-paced narratives and suspenseful plots.
Paretsky was born on June 8, 1947, in Ames, Iowa, to David Paretsky and Mary Edwards. Paretsky attended the University of Kansas, where she received her B.A. in 1967. She received both her M.B.A. and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1967 and 1977, respectively. Paretsky remained in Chicago after earning her degrees, and the city has figured prominently in her detective novels. Paretsky worked as a freelance business writer and later as a marketing manager for a major insurance company before turning to mystery writing full time. She has published novels since the early 1980s when an editor at Dial Press took notice of her work. Paretsky was one of the founding members of Sisters in Crime, a group dedicated to furthering the careers of women in the mystery field, and served as its first president in 1986. She won an award from the Friends of American Writers for Deadlock (1984) in 1985 and was named one of the Women of the Year by Ms. magazine in 1987. In 1988 she won a Silver Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association for Blood Shot (1988).
All Paretsky's novels focus on the same protagonist, private detective Victoria Iphegenia (V. I.) Warshawski. Paretsky's works contain many of the elements of the traditional hard-boiled detective genre: a lone, street-smart detective who works in an urban setting and battles corruption by identifying and punishing transgressors of the law. However, Paretsky also subverts the genre by providing her heroine with a community of supporters. Warshawski is an orphan, but she has an extensive network of friends and neighbors which provides her with emotional support. In Indemnity Only (1982) Warshawski is hired to find a missing University of Chicago student. During her search, she finds her client's son murdered and uncovers a scheme involving a gangster, a union leader, and an insurance agency. Many of Paretsky's novels center around murders which are connected to white-collar crimes: in Deadlock she discovers the seedy side of the shipping business while investigating her cousin's death; in Killing Orders (1985) she investigates stock certificate fraud at a priory which eventually implicates criminal activity between a major corporation, the Catholic Church, and organized crime bosses. In Bitter Medicine (1987) she investigates medical malpractice at a hospital; and in Blood Shot Warshawski discovers a chemical company working in collusion with the mob to pollute natural resources in order to exploit energy needs. Although these crimes are fundamentally white-collar in nature, Warshawski often faces grave physical danger. In Killing Orders, an attacker tries to throw acid in her face and attempts to burn down her apartment. Despite such harrowing episodes, Paretsky has made it a goal to avoid unnecessary violence in her novels, and Warshawski rarely kills her adversaries. In Tunnel Vision (1994), Paretsky moves her central character in several different directions. Warshawski begins to investigate the reasons behind the elimination of a city-funded low-cost housing project for single mothers and eventually uncovers instances of child and spousal abuse, illegal immigration and slave labor, money laundering, computer hacking, and murder.
Reviewers praise Paretsky's portrayal of Warshawski, noting the detective's physical and emotional strength. Many feminist critics laud Paretsky for not sacrificing Warshawski's femininity in order to make her tough. An important feature that reviewers often discuss is Paretsky's reworking of the genre of the hard-boiled detective novel. Jane S. Bakerman states that, “Throughout her work … Sara Paretsky has reformulated and reenergized an old literary pattern by recognizing the value of combining the hard-boiled detective novel with feminist fiction.” There is also consensus among critics regarding Paretsky's well-paced narratives. Mary A. Lowry calls Paretsky's writing “confident and sure.” More recently, however, reviewers complain that Paretsky's social messages are getting in the way of her plots. In his discussion of Tunnel Vision, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asserts, “What doesn't work so well is the way Ms. Paretsky tries to play on our presumed sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and on our hostility to the rich and powerful.” Despite these objections, most commentators acknowledge Paretsky's unwavering tone, her deft characterizations, and the appeal of tightly plotted stories that conclude with satisfying endings.
Indemnity Only (novel) 1982
Deadlock (novel) 1984
Killing Orders (novel) 1985
Bitter Medicine (novel) 1987
Blood Shot (novel) 1988; published in England as Toxic Shock, 1988
Burn Marks (novel) 1990
Guardian Angel (novel) 1992
Tunnel Vision (novel) 1994
Windy City Blues (short stories) 1995
Ghost Country (novel) 1998
Hard Time (novel) 1999
SOURCE: “Living ‘Openly and With Dignity’—Sara Paretsky's New-Boiled Feminist Fiction,” in MidAmerica XII: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, edited by David D. Anderson, The Midwestern Press, 1985, pp. 120-35.
[In the following essay, Bakerman traces how Paretsky redefines the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction to include a strong, independent female protagonist.]
Gumshoe. Shamus. Hawkshaw. Dick. Peeper. Snooper. Sleuth. No matter what he is called, the hard-boiled detective, or private eye, is an American institution, as native as jazz, as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, as appealing as apple pie, as durable as the game of baseball. Cloaked in many disguises … he has become one of the most familiar figures in American cultural mythology.
Twenty dollars per hour—sixteen if you're a family member—hires one of the best private investigators in the business: V. I. Warshawski, the hard-boiled hero created by Sara Paretsky. Warshawski, prime example of an important new guise for the private-eye, is a woman who discusses feminist issues and lives by feminist principles while engaging in a profession which, like the larger society she inhabits, is dominated by men. Her cases to date have been detailed in three superior crime novels, Indemnity Only (1982), Deadlock (1984), Killing Orders (1985), and a short story, “Three-Dot Po.”
With more and more female authors seeking to define new roles for women, it is, perhaps, not surprising that Sara Paretsky is but one of a number (such as Sue Grafton, Marcia Biederman, Marcia Muller and Martha G. Webb in the United States; P. D. James and Liza Cody in England) who embrace the hard-boiled detective novel as a means of making useful statements about contemporary women's lives. Because Paretsky stands well forward among this distinguished company of innovative women writers, an examination of her work, which reveals both traditional and nontraditional elements, is useful in gaining new perspective upon an old literary formula.
In keeping with the hard-boiled tradition, Paretsky employs an urban setting, grounding V. I.'s fictional world in present-day Chicago, covering the South Loop, Lake Shore Drive, various suburbs, the waterfront, and current politics with equal perceptiveness. She acknowledges the blight which affects Chicago as it does most American cities:
The Eisenhower Expressway … looks like a prison exercise yard for most of its length. Run-down houses and faceless projects line the tops of the canyons on either side of its eight lanes. L. stations are planted along the median. The Eisenhower is always choked with traffic, even at three in the morning. At nine on a wet workday it was impossible.
But V. I. also expresses appreciation for her home town and its efforts at civic improvement, frequently combining it with characterization. She notes, for instance, that,
We pride ourselves in Chicago on our outdoor sculptures by famous artists. My favorite is the bronze wind chimes in front of the Standard Oil Building, but I have a secret fondness for Chagall's mosaics in front of the First National Bank. My artist friends tell me they are banal.
Like her contemporary, Robert B. Parker, whose Spenser series substitutes Boston for Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler's California, Paretsky exploits a geographic setting she knows thoroughly, and the City of the Big Shoulders serves her very well; the intricacies of city life (coping with rush-hour traffic, juggling relationships with antagonistic police officers, wondering when upwardly mobile hordes will invade her neighborhood) affords complication to her plots as it deepens the characterization of her protagonist. Above all, the city provides Paretsky's work, as it does that of most private-eye creators, with a useful metaphor for the debilitating tensions of twentieth-century life. In urban areas, these writers, “find empty modernity, corruption, and death. A gleaming and deceptive facade hides a world of exploitation and criminality … enchantment and significance must usually be sought elsewhere.”
Though Warshawski maintains that her specialty, financial crime, “doesn't often lead to violence,” her Chicago streets and expressways are plenty mean: business chicanery lends itself all too readily to murder and mayhem—beatings, arson, shootouts—and it also allows Paretsky to add a useful subsetting to her stories. The commercial misdealings which incite each plot—insurance fraud (Indemnity Only), sabotage and fee skimming among Great Lakes shippers (Deadlock), a counterfeit securities scam involving a Dominican priory (Killing Orders), and a photographer's assignment gone awry (“Po”)—are slightly reminiscent of Emma Lathen's amateur-detective series which mixes high finance with comedy and crime. But there is little humor in Paretsky's work which emphasizes very fast pace and action: she never allows the complexities of the criminal schemes to retard the flow of her story. Instead, she reveals the financial machinations with the same type of relatively brief but telling strokes as she portrays her locale, usually dramatizing them in conversations between dynamic, interesting experts in their fields.
Both geographical setting and illegal business manipulations enhance the sophisticated aura of Paretsky's gritty realism. Subordinating locale and scheme to action lends authority to V. I.'s first-person account of each adventure. Every character and every event are seen through Warshawski's eyes and measured by Warshawski's standards, a well-established, valuable technique of the hard-boiled subgenre:
The notionally “objective” style creates an illusion. It suggests the material presented has absolute value, but at the same time the persona's viewpoint is insistently stressed; his own evaluation of the material is … given a quasi-objective status, made valid by association.
Though many of Warshawski's observations and evaluations are atypical, others are very typical; for instance, concentration on miscreants who seek enormous financial gain enables Paretsky and her protagonist to denounce those who worship money and the things money can buy or who covet the power that money allows its possessors. The corruptive force of such greed is often symbolized by the disintegration of families and by emotional neglect of children, devices which are also conventions of the hard-boiled school. However, as David Geherin has pointed out, innovation is also essential:
fourth-generation [hard-boiled] writers [among whom Paretsky numbers] well understand that the key to success is developing a unique approach, one that combines respectful adherence to the conventions of the genre with their own individual talents and fictional concerns.
One of the updating methods shared by Sara Paretsky and Robert B. Parker is the attention they pay to trends of the 80's; both their protagonists jog, dwell upon their tastes in clothing, and seem preoccupied with food. These simple but effective devices work equally well for both writers, demonstrating that the formula can be modernized without being violated.
Not many formulaic subgenres have been studied and analyzed so closely as has hard-boiled detective fiction. Most critics agree that the form began in the pages of Black Mask magazine, and that the hard-boiled dick traces his ancestry back through American cowboys and Natty Bumppo of Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales, past Sir Walter Scott's heroes, and finally to the knights of medieval romance. The atmospheric elements of the formula “seems constant”: the shabbiness of the investigator's office, the references to alcohol, the city streets, the sleuth's willingness to risk police harassment, his suspiciousness, the necessity to absorb considerable physical punishment, the constant “sense of imminent violence” pervading his life, and the “tired beds” which offer little, if any, promise of long term sexual satisfaction.
Balancing such a detailed pattern with genuine innovation is no mean feat, and Paretsky is one of the best writers who manage this fictive juggling act. It is, perhaps, to her very great advantage in doing so that some of the qualities of the private eye—the tension which informs his life, continuing fear of being afraid, disjunction with the establishment as represented by conflict with the police, for example—recall factors in the lives of members of American minority groups as they have reported them. For actually, the traditional fictional private investigator is a member of a minority, one of the last surviving honorable folk in an increasingly corrupt and corruptive society. They engage in,
the solitary quest for justice, truth, individual integrity … noble activities which emerge time and again as the heroic theme of myth when civilizations begin to disintegrate and the existing social body no longer appears to nourish spiritual needs.
V. I. Warshawski belongs to this seedily distinguished, stubborn minority who stalk dangerous city streets and who prowl decadent suburbs, attempting to defeat criminals who attack society from outside its borders and to thwart corrupt, lazy, or incompetent lawmen who leech from within.
Even more importantly, Paretsky's hero understands minority thinking in yet another way, for as a liberated woman, V. I. Warshawski is well aware that she must constantly defend her independence. Thus, the traditional private investigator's disenchantment with the establishment, the P. I.'s insistence upon his concept of integrity, the gumshoe's distrust of all who reflect her professional attitude. Elements of this mystery subgenre and matching patterns in fiction written by women indicate that the hard-boiled subgenre and feminist fiction are amazingly well suited for one another.
Margolies says of hard-boiled detectives:
given their distrust of organized society and given the absence of social institutions to guide their behavior outside of organized society, the protagonists … have had to create for themselves in little godlike ways their own code of ethics, their own morality. This may in part account for the reasons … the hard-boiled dicks … blithely ignore society's laws about the sanctity of property, due process, assault and battery and other forms of violence.
This comment compares closely with Annis Pratt's assessment of the status of many female heroes:
The greater the personal development of a hero, the more true she is to herself and the more eccentric her relationship to the patriarchy. A quality of consciousness that is essentially antisocial characterizes the most admirable heroes.
To a remarkably great degree, in fact, the situation of the male hard-boiled hero resembles the situations of many, many female protagonists who appear throughout the whole range of fiction. By simply changing the pronouns, for instance, this description of the female hero could readily fit most hard-boiled male private-eyes:
Every element of her desired world—freedom to come and go, allegiance to nature, meaningful work, exercise of the intellect, and use of her own erotic capabilities—inevitably clashes with the patriarchal norms. Attempts to develop independence are met with limitation and immurement, training in menial and frustrating tasks, restrictions of the intellect … limitation of erotic activity. The collision between the hero's evolving self and society's imposed identity appears consistently throughout the history of women's fiction—
almost exactly as it appears in the “male” fiction of the hard-boiled school.
No one is called such belittling names as “Peeper” or “Snooper” if he or his work is truly valued by society, and the traditional private-eye is keenly aware that no matter how nobly he clings to his code of honor, he is all too often perceived as a cheap shamus spying on one marital partner at the behest of the other, an image which is as dated as it is unsavory. It's more comfortable for society to perceive Lew Archer, Spenser—and V. I. Warshawski, for that matter—in this way; to accept them as exemplary figures would force a reevaluation of personal and social codes, would call for nobler behavior from individual and system alike, and the investigators understand this reaction very well. In an attempt to evade the social responsibility adherence to the private investigator's...
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SOURCE: “Killing Order(s): Iphigenia and the Detection of Tragic Intertextuality,” in Yale French Studies Autour de Racine: Studies in Intertextuality, Yale University, 1989, pp. 81-107.
[In the following essay, Goodkin discusses the role of the Iphegenia myth in Paretsky's Killing Orders.]
1. THE DETECTION OF INTERTEXTUALITY
One of the recurring motifs in the current awakening of critical interest in detective fiction has been the parallels between the detective novel and tragedy. Shoshana Felman calls Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus “the classical analytic detective story,” and points out that a number of critics have approached...
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SOURCE: “Women, Mystery, and Sleuthing in the '80s,” in Sojourner: The Women's Forum, Vol. 14, No. 7, March, 1989, pp. 16-7.
[In the following interview, Paretsky discusses her choice to write in the detective genre and her character V. I. Warshawski.]
Sarah Paretsky, author of a series of mystery novels featuring detective V. I. Warshawski, is known for bringing a feminist perspective to the hard-boiled Private Eye genre. V. I., or Vic, as her friends call her, routinely handles street thugs, corporate big shots, and Chicago cops with the same wise-ass bravado. Paretsky, also one of the founding members of the organization Sisters in Crime, was recently in Boston...
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SOURCE: “Crime Time,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1989, p. 41.
[In the following excerpt, Lowry praises Paretsky's Blood Shot, contending that the novel contains not only good writing and good characterizations but a believable plot and a satisfying ending.]
As good to relax with on a winter evening as on a summer vacation, murder mysteries are a great antidote for the blahs. The best mystery writers tell a good tale, solve a puzzle and provide a satisfying solution. A recent Publishers Weekly article documents what booksellers have known for years: Mystery novel sales are on the upswing, and women authors write a good share...
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SOURCE: “The Feminist Counter-Tradition in Crime: Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson,” in The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by Ronald Walker and June Frazer, Western Illinois University, 1990, pp. 174-87.
[In the following essay, Reddy analyzes how Amanda Cross's A Trap for Fools, Sue Grafton's ‘F’ Is for Fugitive, Barbara Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders, and Paretsky's Blood Shot all use feminism to redefine the crime genre.]
When Carolyn Heilbrun published her first mystery novel under the name Amanda Cross in 1964, she began the revival of the feminist crime novel, a...
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SOURCE: “Paretsky, Turow, and the Importance of Symbolic Ethnicity,” in MidAmerica XVIII: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, edited by David D. Anderson, Midwestern Press, 1991, pp. 124-35.
[In the following essay, Szuberla discusses the importance of ethnic identity to the character Rusty Sabich in Scott Turow's book Presumed Innocent and to protagonist V. I. Warshawski in Sara Paretsky's detective novels.]
“I really thought I was Joe College. That's who I wanted to be, and that's who I thought I was. Really, I thought I was fucking Beaver Cleaver, or whoever the boy next door is these days. I really did.” What Rusty...
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SOURCE: “Marele Day's ‘Cold Hard Bitch’: The Masculinist Imperatives of the Private-Eye Genre,” in Journal of the Narrative Technique, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 121-35.
[In the following excerpt, Littler analyzes how feminist writers, including Paretsky, have dealt with the requirement of violence in the detective genre.]
… Most fiction using women private eyes as central characters and usually as narrators has been published in the U.S. since the 1970s. The earliest exceptions to this period, according to Kathleen Gregory Klein, in The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre are Gale Gallagher's I Found Him Dead...
(The entire section is 3854 words.)
SOURCE: “New Women Detectives: G is for Gender-Bending,” in his Gender Language and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 127-40.
[In the following essay, Irons discusses how Paretsky and other women writers have altered detective fiction through their use of strong female protagonists.]
Detection à la femme has been extant since the inception of the detective genre. Not long after the publication of ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Mrs Paschal appeared on the scene. She precipitated a tradition of ‘female sleuths’ who, with the possible exception of Jane Marple, have lived for some time under the shadow of their male...
(The entire section is 3178 words.)
SOURCE: “Funny, Isn't It?: Testing the Boundaries of Gender and Genre in Women's Detective Fiction,” in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1994, pp. 231-51.
[In the following essay, Biamonte traces the use of humor in Paretsky's fiction and in the work of other women writers within the detective genre.]
LAUGHTER AMONG THE CORPSES
My theory of detection resembles Julia Child's approach to cooking: Grab a lot of ingredients from the shelves, put them in a pot and stir, and see what happens.
V. I. Warshawski, Killing...
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SOURCE: “Watching Warshawski,” in It's a Print!: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds and Elizabeth Trembley, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994, pp. 145-56.
[In the following essay, Klein asserts that the commercialization of Paretsky's character V. I. Warshawski in the film of the same name is the main reason the film fails to live up to the novels.]
Hollywood Pictures’ V. I. Warshawski (1991) transforms plots in which Sarah Paretsky carefully weaves professional and personal stories, and where detection is a metaphor for living life, into a simplistic—and essentially unresolved—linear narrative. In the...
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SOURCE: “Books of the Times: The Wet Underbelly of Chicago,” in New York Times, June 20, 1994.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt complains that Paretsky's Tunnel Vision lacks a satisfying ending and that the plot suffers from a lack of complexity.]
Just when work is scarce and bills are going unpaid, a client asks Vic to contribute her free time to finding out why a certain bank has suddenly withdrawn its support of a project to provide low-cost housing for single mothers. And to top off a bad day, Vic is obliged to attend a dinner party for the rich and powerful.
But adversity is the spice of Vic's life, as readers may know from...
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SOURCE: “Female Virtues,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 21, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review, Craig discusses the “female virtues” of the protagonists in Sue Grafton's K Is for Killer and Paretsky's Tunnel Vision.]
There is a moment in the latest Sue Grafton novel, K is for Killer, when the heroine Kinsey Millhone leafs through some back numbers of the magazine Family Circle and finds herself bemused: “To me, it was like reading about life on an alien planet.” What is confronting her, causing distaste and a rueful incomprehension, is a flawless domestic world of beauty aids, floor-cleaners, children and home cooking. Kinsey...
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SOURCE: “Gender and Genre: The Woman Detective and the Diffusion of Generic Voices,” in Feminism in Women's Detective Fiction, University of Toronto Press, 1995, pp. viii-xxii.
[In the following excerpt, Irons discusses the importance of community to Paretsky's detective protagonist V. I. Warshawski, and how Paretsky's portrayal of her has changed the detective genre.]
… Detectives in fiction have always seemed to be a response to what most generations feel is the uncontrollable murder and mayhem that surrounds them. Some have achieved international reputations: names like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Sam Spade are still better known than those of the...
(The entire section is 2128 words.)
SOURCE: “A Question of Visibility,” in Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995, pp. 15-27.
[In the following essay, Kinsman discusses the relationship between the female writer, protagonist, and reader, focusing on Paretsky's character V. I. Warshawski.]
Far away in London, where I have lived for more than twenty years—far away that is from Chicago, from a 1960s suburban Hinsdale adolescence, from my youth, from my American-ness—someone gave me a Sara Paretsky novel, with the off-hand view that I might like it, given my partiality for detective fiction and my American...
(The entire section is 5318 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Friends Is a Weak Word for It’: Female Friendship and the Spectre of Lesbianism in Sara Paretsky,” in Feminism in Women's Detective Fiction, edited by Glenwood Irons, University of Toronto Press, 1995, pp. 156-69.
[In the following essay, Pope analyzes the approach/withdraw orientation towards lesbianism that she asserts exists in Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski detective series, focusing on the relationship between Warshawski and her best friend Dr. Lotty Herschel.]
The opening chapter of Sara Paretsky's seventh V. I. Warshawski novel, Guardian Angel, is titled ‘Sex and the Single Girl.’ Here is the first paragraph: ‘Hot kisses covered my...
(The entire section is 5424 words.)
SOURCE: “The Female Dick and the Crisis of Heterosexuality,” in Feminism in Women's Detective Fiction, edited by Glenwood Irons, University of Toronto Press, 1995, pp. 148-55.
[In the following excerpt, Wilson discusses the protagonists of novelists Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, concluding that “Female hard-boiled fiction offers a mild challenge to the dominant social order but not a radical assault on it.”]
In recent years, critics have hailed the work of three American writers—Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky—as revising, perhaps even renewing, the tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. Each of the writers has created...
(The entire section is 2483 words.)
SOURCE: “Going for the Heart,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 20, 1995, p. 24.
[In the following excerpt, Cooper complains that Paretsky allows ideas to take presidence over all else in the short stories of V. I. for Short.]
There are several traps in the path of crime writers who develop a detective through a series of novels. The most obvious is the formula that becomes boring for both writer and reader. A less simple but perhaps more dangerous snare awaits novelists who avoid the first by dealing ever more seriously with the evil about which they are writing. …
In V. I. for Short, Sara Paretsky has produced a collection of...
(The entire section is 391 words.)