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Sara Paretsky

G.P. Putnam's Sons/ Penguin Group

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-399-15085-4

Publication Date: September, 2003

415 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: September 23, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003



Mystery, General Fiction

Sara Paretsky was one of the early feminist writers of contemporary detective novels featuring a woman as a certified, card-carrying private investigator, a field formerly labeled "for men only". Twenty-one years ago, in 1982, one of the more improbably named female detectives in the history of the genre, V.I. (Victoria Iphegenia) Warshawski debuted in 'Indemnity Only'. V.I.'s now back in her eleventh outing, a little older (but not twenty years worth), a little wiser (but not twenty years worth), with her tenacity and sharp tongue intact, and a dose and a half of attitude. It's good that some things don't change.

Paretsky has consistently woven political themes into her detective fiction, addressing contemporary social issues, most often on the side of the disenfranchised underdog, with a liberal's agenda and a sharp-edged, realistic worldview. 'Blacklist' is her most thematically ambitious offering to date. In a story spanning some fifty years, she tackles civil liberties - HUAC and the McCarthyism of the late 50s, and it's current offspring, Ashcroft's Patriot's Act; post-911 reactionaries, terrorists, Iraq, Afghanistan; race relations between blacks and whites; the ideologies of the far right and the far left; the economic disparities between the very, very wealthy and everyone else; youth and old age; homosexuality; infidelity; abortion; paternity and, of course, murder.

In 'Blacklist', Warshowski is hired by well-heeled Darraugh Graham to investigate his 90-year old mother's complaints of nighttime prowlers on the former family estate in an ultra-posh community outside Chicago. Visiting the estate at night, VI surprises a mysterious, surreptitious teenage girl and, somewhat serendipitously, discovers the body of a black journalist at the bottom of a putrid pond. In the process of identifying both the girl and the journalist, VI confronts the sharks of Chicago's old-moneyed set, unraveling ideological feuds, unseemly fraternization and murky misdeeds dating back to the mid 50s. Simultaneously, and this is a bit of a stretch, this same cast of characters supports a totally contemporary mystery involving a Muslim school worker with an expired visa who's all-too-easily branded a suspected terrorist.

This is not just a multi-layered story, it's a multi-laddered one - a ten-foot ladder to boot - rung upon rung of connection, deception, hidden agendas and ugly history. The sturdiest narrative rung in 'Blacklist' is anchored by those now dead. The black man V.I. found in the pond, Marcus Whilby, was an esteemed writer researching a story on a black dancer Kylie Ballentine who, in the 50s met, was briefly embraced, and ultimately betrayed by Chicago's most powerful ideologists. Involving character upon character, with convoluted inter-relationships, feuds and betrayals both historical and current, the narrative climb is a steep and often confusing one. As Warshawski struggles to figure out who is connected to whom, who betrayed whom, when and why, the reader struggles along with her.

Paretsky seems to be pursuing a thematic agenda more than a narrative one. She is determined to address the disturbing parallels of civil-liberties-at-risk during the McCarthy era and the Bush/Ashcroft era, which she does with acuity and attitude, even if it makes for a slightly unwieldy story. That she controls these disparate rungs, maintains a reasonably well-paced plot and pulls it all together with satisfying realism in the end is testament to her craftsmanship.

Paretsky excels at creating believable, dimensioned characters from all levels of society, none better than V.I. herself. Raised in Chicago's south side, the child of blue-collar Polish parents, V.I. is smart, fiercely independent, tenacious, aggressive and thoroughly principled. She's also all too real, occasionally whiney, occasionally vain, and occasionally totally annoying.

'Blacklist' introduces a plethora of well-drawn characters - the privileged, spoiled but idealistic teenager, Catherine Bayard; her grandmother Renee Bayard, a powerful publishing baroness; the haughty, aging but still mentally sharp Geraldine Graham; and Benji, the terrified but proud Muslim boy. Each has an appropriately embellished history, an identifiable and persuasive point of view and a unique energy. Many of the series regulars are here, too - Mr. Contreras, dog-owning, doting neighbor, Lottie, Jewish physician and best friend, and Bobby, Chief of Police and V.I.'s part time critic, part time guardian angel - all who, after ten books, are now familiar friends to Paretsky readers.

Paretsky's writing style is proficient, clipped but not terse, wholly in tune with her novel's and her protagonist's "just do it" pace. Readers looking for flowing prose will be disappointed. Those looking for words that thoroughly set the scene and propel the plot will be rewarded with crisp language, pertinent observations and a slightly cynical wit.

'Blacklist' is not an easy story to track. It is a convoluted, confusing unraveling of histories long buried, and actions understandable in context but in no way admirable. It is a story of politically untenable extremes and unjust persecution, masquerading as a mystery. As a detective story, it's not Paretsky's best. As a social commentary with a pertinent message, peopled with realistic, compelling characters, it packs a punch.