Friday, December 15, 2017
Books

Review: 'Critical Mass' takes readers deep into the heart of mystery

How is the murder of a meth dealer in an Illinois cornfield tied to the disappearance of a brilliant software designer in Chicago — and the race to develop an atomic bomb in Germany during World War II?

If anyone can answer that question, it's V.I. Warshawski. In Critical Mass, a single panicked phone call will send her into the heart of a mystery that grows deeper and darker than even she imagined.

This is Sara Paretsky's 16th novel — the first was Indemnity Only in 1982 — about V.I., short for Victoria Iphegenia, Vic to her friends. Vic is a Chicago private investigator with fierce loyalties and a fiercer temper. She is a defender of underdogs, and of four-legged dogs as well, as we see in Critical Mass when she rescues a Rottweiler on the brink of starvation from that dead meth dealer's ruined property. (Longtime fans will be happy to know that Vic's longtime dogs, Mitch and Peppy, are doing fine.)

But she brooks no bull from humans, even from big shots like Cordell Breen, who heads up Metargon, a corporate conglomerate with its fingers in defense technology, energy — and computers. It's where that brilliant designer, Martin Binder, worked until he disappeared, and Martin happens to be the son of the woman who made the phone call that set Vic's case in motion. Breen is eager, even desperate, to find Martin, but not to help Vic.

Judy Binder, Martin's mother, is a hopeless junkie and the daughter of a woman named Kitty Binder. Kitty grew up with Dr. Lotty Herschel, a surgeon and one of Vic's oldest and dearest friends. Kitty and Lotty were girls together in Vienna, in the years leading up to World War II. They weren't friends then, and they aren't now, but there are ties that bind them.

The most important is Kitty's mother, Martina Saginor. Martina had a gift for science that led her to teaching and then to research in physics, a field not exactly wide open to women in the 1930s. But her dedication and talent took her far — until the Nazis took over and Martina, a Jew, found herself continuing her research in a slave labor camp, part of the German effort to develop an atomic bomb before the Allies could.

Although much of Critical Mass takes place in the present, told in first person by Vic, Paretsky intersperses chapters about Martina in third person. The young scientist, struggling against the heavy weight of her double handicaps, is the most fascinating character in the book. And Vic finds herself trying to answer not just urgent questions in the present but some in the past: Was Martina's work so extraordinary that it was appropriated by Benjamin Dzornen, who would win a Nobel Prize in physics for it? Was Dzornen Kitty's father? And what was Martina's fate?

Unlike some crime fiction writers who put their series characters through the same kind of case over and over, Paretsky always explores new ground. Here her foray into physics has solid grounding — her husband is Courtenay Wright, now retired after a career as a particle physicist at the University of Chicago. And that setting also serves to open the subject of women in the sciences, one Paretsky is passionate about. The plot is a devilishly convoluted one, but the author is always in control.

Although she has been writing about Vic for more than 30 years, Paretsky always keeps the character fresh and believable. Vic feels the blows and tumbles she takes more than she used to, but she's as relentless as ever. In Critical Mass, both Warshawski and Paretsky are at the top of their forms.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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