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Sara Paretsky
Putnam / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-399-15783-7
Publication Date: 01-03-2012
432 Pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 01-16-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Mystery

It's not just the vivid prose that puts us into the muck with private investigator V. I. Warshawski — in her party dress! — looking for teenagers. It's the situation itself, an emblematic, timeless and thankless task. Those girls aren't going to be happy to have V. I. show up to haul their sorry butts home in the pouring rain, or at least that's what they might think. But Sara Paretsky, never one to pull her punches, certainly doesn't start doing so with her latest novel, 'Breakdown.' The girls she's searching for are in a cemetery, playing out a vampire-novel-inspired fantasy, but it so happens that there is a very fresh corpse on hand. V. I.'s dress is not the only thing that is ruined.

'Breakdown' never lets up, and neither does Paretsky. Readers will barely have time to catch their breath as they learn the identity of the first body when an old friend of V. I.'s shows up, manic, with news that makes little sense but seems important. The complications unfold at an entirely pleasurable pace, with V. I. looking into three seemingly separate matters. But this is Chicago; nobody is too far from anyone else.

Paretsky's been writing V. I. for thirty years now, and she has V. I.'s hardheaded, multi-tasking womanly voice nailed. Social and political matters matter. V. I. is temperamental, smart and only occasionally shortsighted. It's a pleasure to immerse one's self in V. I.'s world. She's not exactly funny, but she has a very dry sensibility that leavens her inclination towards bombast, which is quite entertaining. There's a little bit of Sam Kinnison in V. I. and Paretsky herself. To both, the problems out there are screamingly obvious, and neither is willing to suffer fools gladly. All this adds up to a most entertaining prose style that is a blast to read.

The targets of Paretsky's ire and V. I.'s investigation in 'Breakdown' are the right-wing faux-news outlets that work on the premise that anything shouted loud enough, long enough can be made to seem true, no matter how preposterous. There's an election going on, and Helen Kendrick is hoping to ride her career as a commentator to a place where she can get her sweaty hands on the levers of real power. The body in the cemetery may prove to be helpful to her cause by being hurtful to her opponent's. But that's just the tip a very Chicago-esque iceberg, meaning that the rot and corruption goes a lot deeper than is first apparent.

Paretsky serves up an engaging set of characters who have complicated and realistic lives, whether they're scrubbing toilets or sipping champagne. Her news-reporting friend Murray is caught up in the ever-shrinking world of network contractions, and is now hosting a cheesy TV show on a Fox News Channel analogue. Through her cousin Petra, V. I. meets a variety of mothers and daughters; Paretsky manages to provide just the right amount of detail and grit to bring them all to vivid life. And Paretsky 's clearly having a ball, as will her readers, with her odious opponents, a Glen Beckian TV host and a Rupert Murdochian network magnate. Her manic friend Leydon is a delight, and Leydon's family a damnable delight. Every scene brings a character that readers will be glad to hang out with.

'Breakdown' keeps up a breakneck pace, but never seems rushed. The pacing also applies to Paretsky's political and social concerns. She's outspoken and brash, but never polemic or pretentious. It's simply fun to see her go for it with all the gusto she can manage. She addresses injustice in a variety of settings, from immigration to mental health, with an entertaining and incisive wit.

'Breakdown' is a novel that manifestly does not live up to its title; it never breaks down, and provides a very satisfying resolution. In that sense, for all its modernity — cell phone tapping, corporate consolidation, 21st-century political machinations — 'Breakdown' is a very classic and classy mystery. Even though we are a society of laws, justice alone is never enough. Paretsky and V. I. Warshawski deliver what we really need, served up ice-cold — justice and vengeance.

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