I often find contemporary crime fiction less enjoyable than historical mysteries or works from the “Golden Age” of crime writing. Modern crime stories often appear too close to home in our seemingly perilous world, and the increasing fascination of authors with serial killers and child victims leaves me cold. There are, however, a few contemporary writers of crime fiction whose works capture my ear for their use of language, their relentless portrayal of good and evil, and their refusal to include gratuitous violence.
Sara Paretsky’s Chicago novels admirably fit these qualifications. Parestsky’s stories follow the career of Victoria Iphigenia (V.I.) Warshawski, a tough and relentlessly ethical private detective. In addition to telling a fast-paced and occasionally violent crime story, Paretsky’s fiction usually examines social issues in the context of the mystery. V.I. takes it upon herself to stand up for what she believes is right, but the novels are never preachy. While definitely centered around her main protagonist, Paretsky also populates the story with a mix of interesting and believable supporting characters, many of whom reoccur throughout titles in the series.
Though many readers like to read titles in strict series order, I think that Fire Sale, the 13th in the series, is an interesting one to start with. Here, Paretsky takes the reader back to the gritty, impoverished neighborhoods of V.I. Warshawski’s childhood. Warshawski returns to fill in as coach of a high school girls basketball team, and her search for outside funding for the team leads her to a Walmart-like corporation. Soon, Warshawski is drawn into an investigation that includes abusive employment practices, violent destruction of the competition, and a ruthless approach to maintaining business advantages. Fire Sale exposes the hypocrisy that is at the heart of a supposedly benevolent corporation, run on Christian principles, and shows how this hypocrisy tears apart not only the family but also the community. The vivid descriptions of the city and a strong affection for her characters bring me back to Paretsky time after time.
Check the WRL catalog for Fire Sale