Sara Paretsky Biography


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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 During this time, she “dug out of a drawer” a number of unpublished Warshawski short stories and collected them as Windy City Blues (1995).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).


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sara Paretsky (pah-REHT-skee) is credited with creating the first hard-boiled woman detective in American fiction. Born in Iowa, she moved with her family to eastern Kansas when she was very young. Growing up in the 1950’s, Paretsky confronted traditional gender roles, not only in the community but also at home. The only girl of five children, she received little encouragement for her writing from her family, even though at age eleven she published a story in American Girl. She reports that as a teenager she seldom spoke above a whisper because, as she wrote in an article for The New York Times, “so fearful I was of the criticism that dogged almost anything I said or did.” Expected to marry and raise children rather than pursue a career or attend college, Paretsky financed her own education, while her parents provided tuition for her four brothers. Her father, a professor and scientist, did not believe that girls were worth educating.

Paretsky enrolled at the University of Kansas and majored in political science. When she was nineteen, she was greatly influenced by a summer spent as a community service worker in Chicago. At the same time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was organizing supporters in a nearby neighborhood in an attempt to gain open housing and equal pay for minorities. Deeply concerned by the poverty and oppression she witnessed, Paretsky determined to write about the lives of people whose voices went unheard. She abandoned the romantic tales she had composed since childhood in favor of stories about people on the margins of society. However, she had yet to acquire enough confidence in her own voice to share her writing with others.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in 1967, she moved to Chicago and began doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, motivated more by a need to prove her intelligence to her family than by scholarly interest. She continued to write creatively, publishing in 1973 a short story about a woman so trapped in her role as housewife and mother...

(The entire section is 831 words.)