Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2433
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 that come her way.
The Warshawski stories are written in the first person, which gives the narrator the observer’s status, always slightly marginal to the events she describes. Warshawski is something of a loner. Rather than playing sports, she stays in shape by running in the early mornings along Lake Michigan. Her running, her scotch drinking, and her often insulting irreverence evince her comfort with her outsider status.
In contrast to the detached cynicism of most of the male characters in the genre, however, Warshawski tends to become personally involved in the events she describes and to evoke the larger picture into which they fit. Indeed, in Hard Time she gets so involved—against the advice and pleadings of her friends—that she ends up in prison for several chapters. Warshawski, in fact, is quick to joke about her well-developed sense of social justice and her ability to do automatic affirmative action tallies in large groups of people. Her feminism, too, is displayed through humor, often in the aphorisms by which she operates. Paretsky thus contributes to the subtly crusading spirit that pervades the genre but refrains from didacticism by continually commenting on her sarcastic observation of social mores.
Warshawski’s investigative method is relatively unscientific. She pokes around talking to people and begins to fit events and suspects into logical patterns. Paretsky’s plots grow complex and then unravel by accretion—their climactic moments are ones of logical disclosure rather than fast chases or violent encounters. Yet they do not lack suspense or tension—Warshawski’s methods are frequently illegitimate, if not illegal. For example, she is adept with lock-picking tools left in her possession by a burglar she once defended in the district attorney’s office. She gathers information directly from her sources, which often involves nighttime visits to offices in which she does not belong.
Warshawski is not above relying on her feminine wiles to advance her cause, but Paretsky uses her heroine’s moments of false identity and disguise to comment on the traditional expectations of the female role. If some men generally expect women to be less intelligent than Warshawski, she will impersonate a more foolish woman to get some piece of vital information. In her own guise, she is adamant that no one condescend to her, and her feminism is more pronounced.
Men, Friends, and Family
In the tradition of the detached observer, Warshawski’s relationships with men are casual and short-lived, rarely figuring prominently in the development of the plot. More traditional detective stories typically punish sexually active women under the auspices of the femme fatale stereotype. Warshawski’s casual, healthy attitude toward her sexual encounters reflects the feminist premise that grounds Paretsky’s writing.
Warshawski and journalist Murray Ryerson are occasional lovers, but their interactions are based more on mutual respect, affection, and the sharing of information than on building a long-term, secure commitment. In Deadlock and Killing Orders, Warshawski takes up with an English reinsurance broker named Roger Ferrant, whose expertise gives Paretsky a way to include information on securities and insurance transactions necessary for her plots. In Bitter Medicine, Warshawski has an affair with Peter Burgoyne, the head of obstetrics at Friendship V Hospital (he was the doctor in charge during Consuelo’s treatment and subsequent death). Warshawski’s involvement with Burgoyne eventually becomes suspect when she realizes that he and the hospital administrator have been involved in Tregiere’s murder and the cover-up of various illicit operations and false advertising practices. She takes up with a new beau in Guardian Angel, only to have him decide to step back from the relationship because of her lone wolf style in Tunnel Vision.
Warshawski’s lack of permanent romantic involvements is incidental to Paretsky’s stories. Her character’s professional veneer is fleshed out with humanizing notes from her family history. Like the city she loves, Warshawski is a melting pot of ethnicity—her mother was an Italian immigrant who married a Polish Jew. A good-natured but alcoholic and underhanded aunt gets Warshawski involved in arson, the homicide of a young hooker, and other difficulties in Burn Marks (1990). The spirit of Paretsky’s innocent, revered mother is evoked in each of her stories with mention of the red Venetian wineglasses that were her mother’s legacy. In “Grace Notes,” a story in Windy City Blues, a long-lost cousin turns up looking for sheet music that belonged to Warshawski’s mysterious mother, and a bit more is revealed about her. In Hard Time, events and losses cause Vic to contemplate her mother’s death on other levels.
Warshawski’s closest friend, Dr. Lotty Herschel, often serves as a model of social consciousness that Paretsky contrasts with the corruption of top-heavy bureaucracies. A Viennese immigrant, Herschel fled Nazism by coming to the United States as part of the Kindertransport, as revealed in Total Recall. She has dedicated her life to helping disadvantaged people as a response to the evils she has personally endured. Herschel is a woman of stature within the medical field. In addition to her regular duties as a perinatalogist at Beth Israel Hospital, she runs a clinic for low-income families in the run-down Chicago neighborhood where Warshawski rents an apartment.
Herschel is a woman with enormous personal dignity and compassion; her commitment to her work supersedes expectations of the more traditional female role. Although her suitors are distinguished gentlemen, she refuses to marry. Herschel offers companionship and support, and she is even something of a role model. Her advice provides a counterpoint to Mallory’s blustery admonitions to be more of a conventional “girl.”
Herschel figures largely in Bitter Medicine, the fourth novel in the Warshawski series and Paretsky’s first excursion outside the realm of financial crime. Warshawski is present at the scene of the untimely death of a pregnant teenage girl, who happens to be the sister of Herschel’s nurse. Consuelo’s death at a tidy suburban hospital whose staff is unaccustomed to treating low-income emergency patients raises the specter of malpractice suits against both the hospital and Lotty Herschel. When Herschel’s partner, Malcolm Tregiere, is murdered and his dictation on Consuelo’s case is missing, Warshawski begins to seek out the pattern that ties together Consuelo’s death, Tregiere’s murder, an antiabortion rally at Herschel’s clinic, and the less-than-honest machinations of the suburban hospital’s administration. Guardian Angel finds Warshawski pursuing a course of action that puts her and Herschel at odds and strains their friendship.
Bobby Mallory is somewhat displaced in Bitter Medicine by Detective Rawlings, a black man assigned to the case. Attention to racial issues is an integral part of the story’s development, from Warshawski’s maneuverings through the intricacies of implicit racism toward her Hispanic friend to a Hispanic gang’s probable involvement in the murder of a black doctor. The gang theme allows Paretsky to place her female sleuth on turf usually addressed only by white male police officers in violent displays of machismo.
Bitter Medicine allows Warshawski her first trip outside Chicago’s city limits, and it gives Paretsky the opportunity for some playful commentary on the difference between affluent suburban and low-income city values. Warshawski’s former husband, Richard Yarborough, appears for the first time, as the high-priced lawyer representing a sleazy antiabortionist. Warshawski’s dialogues with Yarborough are intentionally nasty. He has exchanged his marriage with her for one with a more traditionally feminine woman, and he is easily angered at Warshawski’s frank jabbing at his bourgeois lifestyle. The Chicago suburbs appear as empty, sanitized havens from the gang violence and poverty of inner-city living—a milieu that Warshawski prefers.
Killing Orders embroils Warshawski in a case that touches her personally when her Aunt Rosa is accused of placing counterfeit securities in a Dominican priory safe. There is little love lost between Warshawski and her reproving, hostile aunt, but family obligations require that Warshawski see the case through. In the process, emotional ghosts add a more complex layer to Warshawski’s personality. In her investigation, she must deal with murder, the Dominicans, an international conglomerate, and the Mafia, and she begins to suspect her lover, Roger Ferrant, or her aunt might be responsible for some of the crimes.
Not a polite, urbane lady sleuth in the Sayers tradition, Paretsky’s Warshawski is a female private investigator based on the traditional male model. Warshawski is kin to an ever-growing host of female detectives fashioned in the hard-boiled tradition. The new women investigators are smart, physical, hard-living women, whose facility to move through the cracks and underbellies of big cities makes them well suited to their work. Although hard-boiled, such a character is not afraid to let her emotions and intuition influence the way she handles her cases. Paretsky and other female mystery and detective writers are reshaping a pervasive American myth by creating admirable female characters who get the job done as well as—or better than—their male predecessors.
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