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.