A Woman of High Courage
By Sara Paretsky
“With the momentum of a mystery and the trajectory of a good story with a solution,” Carolyn Heilbrun once observed, “the author is left free to dabble in a little profound revolutionary thought.” From her first V.I. Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only (1982), Sara Paretsky has used the familiar and highly marketable form of the detective novel in just this way, focusing on systemic injustices ranging from insurance fraud to sexual abuse in women’s prisons to the threats to civil liberties posed by the Patriot Act. “We’re all inured these days to being searched,” V.I. muses in Paretsky’s most recent novel, Body Work. “Pretty soon we’ll have to get undressed before we walk into our apartment buildings at night, and we’ll probably submit to that without a murmur.”
This approach has not been universally appreciated. Writing in the New York Times in 2001, Paretsky quotes from a letter she received from an angry reader complaining that her books were “infested” with politics: “When I buy a mystery I expect to be entertained and when you bring in all that stuff about homeless people, you aren’t entertaining me.” Paretsky, however, rejects the distinction between fiction that entertains and fiction that provokes—or, in the terms her reader implicitly invokes, between genre fiction and ‘serious’ or literary fiction. Mysteries are “by definition political,” she observes:
Peter Wimsey staunchly defends an England where everyone knows his (or her) place and is happy in it. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade inhabit a landscape filled with explicit sexual politics. Chandler’s women “reek of sex,” as Marlowe complains in The Little Sister; like Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Chandler’s women try to make good boys do bad things, but Marlowe and Spade are both too moral for them. Mysteries, like cops, are right up against the place where people’s basest and basic needs intersect with law and justice.
It’s no accident that Paretsky highlights the gender politics implicit in these particular examples: the first radical move she made when launching her own detective series was placing a woman in the role of the hard-boiled private investigator. V.I.—“Vic” to her friends (but never “Vicki”)—is a tough-talking, risk-taking loner with many of the vigilante instincts of her hyper-masculine predecessors. At the same time, unlike Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (whose first appearance, in ‘A’ is for Alibi, was also in 1982), V.I. does not scorn her femininity in service of what Grafton called “playing hardball with the boys.” V.I. inhabits her woman’s body proudly, dressing well, exercising, and unapologetically enjoying her sexuality: in Paretsky’s novels, unlike in Chandler’s or Hammett’s, women are not restricted to playing either the femme fatale or the victim. Further, though V.I. frequently relies on her street-fighting skills to survive a dangerous turn in an investigation, she is also compassionate and nurturing. To many young women she meets in the novels, as well as to many readers, she exemplifies what it means to be strong without being hard, to be powerful but also feminine.
V.I.’s Chicago is no feminist fantasyland, however. Rather, it’s a place in which female autonomy and power still create discomfort, even hostility, among those whose privileges are threatened. V.I. endures the constant irritations and dangers of a world in which adult women (including her) are routinely called “girls,” in which sexual voyeurism and exploitation are normalized, in which walking down what Chandler famously called “the mean streets” puts women at risk in ways quite unlike what Spade and Marlowe face. Whatever specific case V.I. investigates, the pervasive crime of sexism is always exposed as well.
Body Work continues this doubling pattern along with Paretsky’s characteristic emphasis on the corrupting effects of corporate greed. Indeed, as its complicated plot unfolds, revealed evils proliferate in the novel until it becomes not only difficult but irrelevant to distinguish V.I.’s nominal assignment from the general context of moral rot and exploitation in which that specific crime occurs—it is symptomatic, rather than singular. The novel opens with the shooting of Nadia Guaman outside a Chicago nightclub. She dies in V.I.’s arms:
A cop poked his head through the open ambulance door. “You the gal that put her coat on the dead girl?”
Dead woman, I started to say, but I was too exhausted to fight that battle tonight. Nadia was dead, and whatever one called her, it wouldn’t bring her back to life.
The club has been featuring performances by the Body Artist, who poses nearly naked on stage and invites her audience to paint on her skin. Nadia’s contribution, “an intricate design, scrolls of fleurs-de-lis done in pink and gray,” inexplicably enrages another audience member, Chad Vishneski, whose furious threats make him an obvious suspect in her killing. When he is found with the murder weapon on his pillow, unconscious from an apparent suicide attempt, the conclusion seems obvious—except to his family, who hire V.I. to prove his innocence. V.I. soon finds enough evidence to convince her Chad has been framed, but what or whose interests are served by Nadia’s death or Chad’s incapacitation, and how the two might be connected, takes much longer to figure out.
The connections that do finally emerge lead us straight into the politically infested territory of the Iraq war. Chad is a veteran suffering from PTSD after the rest of his unit was killed in a firefight on the road to Kufah. Nadia’s sister Allie was working for a private security firm when she was killed by an I.E.D. outside of Baghdad—or so her family has been told. In a more conventional detective novel these plots would have triangulated into a single story, but it turns out all three victims—Nadia, Allie, and Chad—have been targeted for different reasons. Their cases are related by more than just proximity, and they do have a common enemy, but it’s not an individual but a mindset, an ideology of greed, entitlement, and conquest. Beyond resolving and apportioning the blame for Nadia’s murder, the revelations that conclude V.I.’s investigation provoke broader questions about parallels between sexual and military violence. “Little girl, little girl,” runs a lyric recited during a climactic scene,
What’s your sister?
Played with by big boys
Until she’s broken
Little boy, little boy,
Where’s your brother?
Blown up by big boys
Into small pieces.
The novel also highlights the way fears of foreign enemies can be used as a smokescreen to protect home-grown villains, such as the evildoers that set Allie’s raped and murdered body on fire and left it by the roadside “so that everyone would assume she had been the victim of an Iraqi assault.” These are not problems amenable to individual solutions, and though by the end of Body Work many of the people directly involved in Nadia’s murder have been put out of action and Chad has been cleared, the novel’s conclusion lives up to the Russian proverb from which its penultimate chapter takes its title: “There is some justice in this world, just not enough.”
In her Times piece Paretsky notes her dislike for “books written only to make a point”:
There’s a reason that the writers we know from Stalin’s Russia are Pasternak and Akhmatova, not Gribachev, who wrote Spring in the Victory Collective Farm. Pasternak may have wanted to make a point . . . but he wanted to write about human beings caught up in events, not idealized political types.
Despite Paretsky’s own clear polemical interests, Body Work generally succeeds at dramatizing politics as embodied in the lives of “human beings caught up in events.” We hear stories about Iraq, for instance, and about the difficulties of re-entry into civilian life, from Chad’s VA buddies:
“Chad lost his whole squad. That’s all he ever said, not any details about how it happened. You know what that’s like? Guys you been eating and sleeping with, suddenly they’re lying dead all around you. They sent him home after that for four months, then he had to redeploy. And he was fine, he said, as long as he was over there. But once he got discharged, once he got home, he couldn’t take being around civilians. No one here gives a rat’s ass about what we went through. It’s hell to be there, to be going through it. But it’s a hundred—no, a million—times worse to be here where no one cares.”
And it’s a devastated father, not a “political type,” who confronts the smug war profiteers whose top priority is money in their pockets, not soldiers’ lives:
“You chicken shit, you fucking coward, you send my boy and his friends to war without protection so you can make a few extra bucks and then you flaunt a medal?”
Of course it’s V.I. herself who is most caught up in events and has the most to say about them; her depth and consistency as a character give her reflections on “the dead and walking wounded from that pointless war” credibility as more than extra-literary talking points.
V.I.’s physical fearlessness, on the other hand—also a longstanding feature of her character—perhaps does strain credibility, especially now that V.I. is moving into middle age. Still, there’s a certain rebellious pleasure in observing her stubborn refusal to be intimidated or victimized, and in her continued use of the ‘tough talk’ characteristic of her hard-boiled predecessors:
I was sluggish, and he moved away easily, kicking me in the stomach as he came back at me.
“Don’t get cute with me, girlie. I know you have it.”
Someone came up and seized my feet. Called to another thug. Two or three others were in the background, I couldn’t see.
Rodney bent close to my head, grabbed my hair. “Where is it?”
The Body Artist’s computer. I couldn’t remember if it had still been in the front seat when I got into the Pathfinder.
“AIDS, you mean?” I said. “Swine flu? Is that what you think I have?”
He let go of my hair and punched at my face, but I moved my head in time, and he hit my coat shoulder. Good job, V.I. Not dead yet.
As these examples illustrate, Paretsky’s prose has none of Chandler’s rhetorical flourishes, and except in some of the dialogue, little of Hammett’s epigrammatic vigor. The novel’s procedural format, too, in which we follow V.I. step to step through her investigation, reflects (sometimes a bit ploddingly) the laborious realities of private eye work, of a mundane rather than a mythic quest for the truth. But V.I. knows she’s not Spade or Marlowe—indeed, throughout the series runs a somewhat rueful refrain in which V.I. at once acknowledges the great detective tradition and differentiates herself from it. Depressed after a frustrating interview in Indemnity Only, she imagines that “Peter Wimsey would have gone in and charmed all those uncouth radicals into slobbering all over him.” “When I was younger and more insouciant,” she thinks, when challenged to explain her relationship with Nadia in Body Work, “I would have quoted the great Philip Marlowe and said ‘Trouble is my business,’ but tonight I was cold and apprehensive.” Later on, V.I. looks quizzically at her entourage: “Sam Spade, with dogs, cousin, old man, and Marines—kind of like calling on a suspect with a circus parade in tow.” Less self-deprecating is this sly nod to another, more recent, fictional colleague: “I’ve stirred the hornets’ nest, they’re buzzing around like mad, stinging wherever they see exposed flesh, and that’s going to lead me to the queen.” Just as V.I. turns in anger on a young woman detective who bridles at her requests—“I am one of the old-fashioned feminists who helped open this door for you, Officer Milikova, so don’t get on your high horse with me”—so Paretsky reminds us that Lisbeth Salander is not the first female crime fighter who won’t take any shit from men.
“My detective solves her cases with grit and hard work,” Paretsky has remarked, “but she can’t rely on institutions of justice to punish the well-connected criminal.” As V.I. contemplates her inevitable, but inevitably frustrating, failure to resolve the large-scale problems her investigation has exposed, she worries that in crusading for elusive abstractions such as ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ she too readily sacrifices the needs and interests of those closest to her. Earlier in the novel, one of V.I.’s more powerful clients compares her to a stray dog he befriended as a child who became his loyal protector. “You remind me of Rock,” he tells Vic. “Scrappy. Sink your teeth into anyone’s calf if you see them kicking a kid.” That defiant scrappiness, that righteous indignation in the face of any abuse of power, has defined V.I.’s career, but now she fears that her attempts to set the world to rights might actually “do more harm than good.” “Sometimes I think the fact that I’m so willing to act is a danger to the world around me,” she writes in a disconsolate email to her lover, Jake.
V.I. is brought to this particularly low point not just by watching the well-connected corporate villains of Body Work go right back to work, but also by the comments of her young cousin Petra, who assists her on the case but ultimately resists her activist lifestyle:
“I don’t want to leave you in the lurch or anything, but, Vic, I don’t think I’m cut out for detective work. People getting shot or cut to bits, I hate it. I was so scared last Sunday. And then I saw how tough and cool you were, and, don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t want to be like you when I’m your age. Like, living alone, and being so hard that violence doesn’t seem to bother you.”
Petra’s words remind both V.I. and Paretsky’s readers that V.I. can never take her identity or her choices for granted: she is constantly exposed to the critical gaze of those who cannot accept her refusal to settle into a safer, more conventionally feminine role. Her ideologically difficult position is literalized when she takes the place of the Body Artist on stage in order to provoke the climactic confrontation that finally breaks open the case. Both V.I. and the Body Artist, after all, perform before an often hostile audience and cannot always control the way their actions are interpreted and judged. It’s a vulnerable position to be in no matter how principled the motive, and it’s understandable that V.I. sometimes needs reassurance that her work is worth the sacrifices and dangers, and that there are people who will love and respect her for doing it, for being who she is.
The tone towards the end of Body Work is unexpectedly reflective, even elegiac, as V.I. struggles with self-doubt and wonders if it would have been better for her to have “followed a calmer path.” But the novel ends on an affirmative note, closing with Jake’s tribute to Vic’s achievements:
She’s a woman of high courage. She just saved a girl and rescued a soldier, and did so with all her usual spirit and guile. V.I. Warshawski, I hope you’re listening.
After spending almost thirty years in V.I.’s company, Paretsky’s readers certainly are.
Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where she sometimes teaches a seminar on women and detective fiction. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs about literature and criticism at Novel Readings.