Fans of legendary crime fiction writer Sara Paretsky have devoured her 21 novels about Chicago private investigator V.I. Warshawski. The daughter of a police officer and an opera singer, Warshawski is one of the most memorable, and toughest, series characters in mystery fiction.
Paretsky herself has scooped just about every prize for crime fiction there is. She’s one of only four living writers (and the only woman) to receive both the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and the Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. After publishing the first Warshawski book, Indemnity Only, in 1982, in 1986 she created Sisters in Crime, a worldwide organization to support female crime writers, which now has more than 4,000 members.
Paretsky’s latest book, Love & Other Crimes, is a short story collection. Some of its 14 tales are new, others previously published. All of them boast Paretsky’s keenly observed characters, and many of them reflect the concern for issues such as class, racial and sex discrimination that is a hallmark of the Warshawski novels.
Paretsky is a historian by training (she has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago), and some of these stories wrap in a bit of American history. Miss Bianca, set at the University of Kansas during the 1950s, is a miniature Cold War espionage thriller. The title character is one of the laboratory mice cared for by 10-year-old Abigail, who has an informal job in a science lab where her mother works as a secretary.
Abigail is more observant than many of the adults around her, and she’s intrigued when Dr. Kiel, her mother’s boss, hires a Czech refugee, Elena Mirova, ostensibly as a dishwasher in the lab. It’s soon obvious Elena is extremely overqualified; before long, the FBI and a KGB man are running around the campus, and Abigail saves the day in more ways than one. Be sure to read the notes after each story — Paretsky reveals that this one was based on her scientist father’s real-life exploits.
Eight of the stories feature V.I. The title tale finds her being hired, among many insults, by a childhood enemy, Sonia Litvak, to get her slacker brother out of jail. Sonia swears “Baby Gregory” is not guilty of wrecking a wine warehouse with a forklift after being fired from his job there — nor of murdering the company’s accountant, whose body was found amid the debris. It’s a comic story in which V.I. has to wade through decades of family dysfunction to get at the surprising truth.
Perhaps the biggest treat for Warshawski fans is Wildcat. It’s set during her childhood, when she was still called Victoria. Her propensity to run toward trouble is already well developed, though. She’s worried sick about her father, who lately has been “away from home for three days at a time, working treble shifts along with every other cop in the city.”
It’s the summer of 1966, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is living in Chicago and leading marches to protest segregated housing. In Victoria’s Southside neighborhood, then filled with European immigrants like her own Polish and Italian families, reaction to the marches is sharply divided. When a family feud between her father and an uncle threatens to turn violent, Victoria sneaks out to warn her dad during a massive demonstration at Marquette Park and gets an unforgettable close-up view of history and racism.
Afterward, her mother laments, “I do not want her to think she is a heroine, who can go saving people in danger.” Those of us who love Warshawski’s adventures can only say, “Sorry, Mom.”
Love & Other Crimes: Stories
By Sara Paretsky
William Morrow Paperbacks, 448 pages, $17.99
The Oxford Exchange in Tampa will host a virtual book launch for Lisa Unger’s Confessions on the 7:45 with guest Sara Paretsky (Love & Other Crimes), moderated by Times book editor Colette Bancroft, at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6. Free; register at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.