BRUSH BACK by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. Warshawski is back, albeit a bit older and not quite as rash as before.  But her moral outrage is just as strong as ever when she believes there’s been wrongdoing or corruption, and she can’t seem to totally stop herself from getting into situations that put her in danger.

In baseball terminology, a brush back is a pitch thrown at the batter as a means to intimidate him.  It’s usually a fast ball aimed at the batter’s head, obviously a risky situation.  And while V. I. isn’t a batter, the danger to her is as real as if she were on the mound facing a ruthless pitcher.

V. I. grew up in a tough South Chicago neighborhood, and although she has moved onward and upward she has never forgotten where she came from and the friends she had there.  But she’s still surprised when a man comes into her office and greets her with unwelcome familiarity.  However, after a minute and a closer look she realizes he’s Frank Guzzo, a teenage boyfriend she hasn’t seen in thirty years.

Frank is now married and a father, working for a large trucking company.  He has reluctantly come to talk to his former girlfriend about his mother, Stella, recently released from prison after serving a twenty year sentence, or, in the local parlance, two dimes.  Stella was convicted of killing her daughter Annie, beating her to death and then leaving her body while she went to play bingo at the local church.

After all this time, Stella is claiming she was framed, that the young and inept lawyer who was provided by friends didn’t do anything to prove her innocence.  Frank is asking V. I. to look into the case, to help find evidence to exonerate his mother.

V. I.’s first response is to refuse, remembering how hateful Stella had always been to her family, jealous of the close bond between Annie and V. I.’s mother.  Stella was always violent, giving her children bruises and black eyes as punishments for their supposed misbehaviors and sins, so the private investigator has had no difficulty over the years believing that Stella killed her own child.  But Frank was V. I.’s boyfriend at a very difficult time in her life, and she finally agrees to visit Stella for “One free hour, Frank.  I’ll ask questions for sixty minutes.”  But that, of course, proves to be just the beginning of a case that involves Mob figures, police corruption, and multiple murders.

Once again, Sara Paretsky gives readers an intimate look into Chicago’s mean streets and obsession with sports.  Now pushing middle age, V. I. is trying to stand back a bit from the dangers she sees around her.  But circumstances, and her teenage cousin, push her into an investigation that nearly costs V. I. her life and the lives of others as well.

It’s a delight to see V. I. again.  Some familiar characters are here, Lotty Herschel, Max Lowenthal, and Bobby Mallory included.  But we also are introduced to V. I.’s cousin Pierre Fouchard and his seventeen-year-old daughter Bernie.  Bernie is staying with V. I. for a few weeks while she looks into Northwestern University and its women’s hockey program, and her intensity and desire for the truth remind the investigator of her own younger self.  But those two qualities can prove to be very dangerous to all concerned.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

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