Friday, February 3, 2012

Breakdown by Sara Paretsky: A review

The famously cranky and snarky Chicago private investigator Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is back with another quest in search of justice for the powerless and downtrodden. At age fifty, V.I. (Vic) does not seem to have mellowed one whit. Her outrage at injustice burns as brightly as ever. In Breakdown, there is plenty of injustice for her to confront. 

The story begins with her being called from a social gathering she's attending with her friend Murray. Her young cousin, Petra, is worried about a group of pre-teenage girls who were in her care. It seems that, under the spell of Carmilla, Queen of the Night, a fictional magical shape-shifting character who is a hero to the girls, they have slipped out at night to an old abandoned cemetery to perform an initiation ritual. Vic leaves her party and goes to the cemetery to round up the girls, but there, she finds more than she bargained for. Near where the girls are performing their ritual is the body of a murdered man with a stake through his heart lying on a tomb. And thus the adventure begins. 

One of the girls in the group was the granddaughter of a billionaire survivor of the Holocaust. He is supporting a liberal candidate, a family friend, for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. On the opposite side of the political divide is a cable news network that specializes in giving a radical right-wing slant to all its "news" stories. Its biggest star is Wade Lawlor, a Glenn Beck type character, who rants and rages and cries on camera and has a huge and devoted following. The "news" network and Lawlor are out to destroy Chaim Salanter, the Holocaust survivor, and his candidate for the Senate. To bring about that destruction, they are trying to dig up dirt from the past of Salanter. 

Vic gets involved further when a call from an old friend, a brilliant but mentally erratic lawyer, brings her to a meeting, but she arrives too late and finds her friend crumpled in a heap and almost dead, apparently having jumped from a high place. But something doesn't add up and Vic keeps digging which brings her to a state mental hospital where her friend had been a recent resident. Her investigation keeps turning up anomalies and strange links between events and she begins to suspect that everything is related. 

Sara Paretsky's plots are always complicated and are overlaid with a strong political point of view. It's one of the things that I enjoy most about her writing. Moreover, her V.I. Warshawski has changed and grown over the years. She has constructed an extended "family" for herself consisting of Mr. Contreras her elderly neighbor, the dogs Mitch and Peppy, her young cousin Petra, and Jake her neighbor with whom she has established a fairly stable (for her) romantic relationship. And, of course, there are always Lotty and Max, themselves Holocaust survivors, who are Vic's oldest and staunchest friends and Murray Ryerson, the journalist with whom she has long worked and who is now being pushed out of his job by the news mogul who owns the right-wing network. All of these characters play strong roles in the present mystery. 

Paretsky is a very good writer and her stories always seem torn from today's headlines. It's been that way from the beginning of this series in 1982 with Indemnity Only. I've read all eighteen of the books in the series and it has been fascinating to watch the progression of V.I. Warshawski's life and career. Throughout it all, now thirty years later, she and her creator have retained their edge. 

Paretsky's is not really escapist fiction, but stories that are designed to make the reader stop and consider what is actually happening in the real world. It's the kind of fiction which one probably either loves or hates. I happen to love it.

6 comments:

  1. Paretsky is one of my favorites. You did a fine job in reviewing this novel, Dorothy.
    Mike

    PS Please stop over at my blog and say hi.

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  2. Thank you, Mike. I certainly will pay you a visit.

    Congratulations on your book, "Splattered Blood." Maybe I'll get a chance to review it here some day!

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  3. As you say, this fiction seems to come from reading the newspaper. With the 2012 election process seeming to have reached all time lows, it is as well to remind ourselves that there is no limit to what some people will do. There was a great interview with Sara Paretsky by Elaine Charles on The Book Report radio show. You can listen to it on http://www.bookreportradio.com.
    She gives some interesting insights into the creative process.

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    1. Thanks for the link, Francis. I'll give it a listen. Paretsky is a favorite of mine. I've been fascinated to watch her evolution as a writer over the years. I think she's just gotten better and better.

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  4. I was wondering whether you would be happy to put up a link in my brand new monthly series called “Books You Love”. The idea is for people to link up posts about a book they loved – it doesn’t have to be one they just posted about. It could be an old fave. I am hoping we will end up with a nice collection of books that can go on our reading lists. Here is the link Books You Loved May Edition

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    1. Hey, Carole, thanks for dropping in and letting me know about your meme. What a great idea! I'd love to participate. Just let me give it some thought and decide which book I want to list.

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