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Book Author: Sara Paretsky

DEAD LAND by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

The prologue of Dead Land opens in the middle of the night with the loud buzz of the doorbell waking V. I. Warshawski and her very angry neighbors.  Vic hurries down the stairs and opens the front door to find a large dog tied to a nearby lamppost with a short note of explanation attached to his collar.  Coop, a man she hardly knows, has left his dog Bear with her for safekeeping, not saying where he’s gone or why.

The book flashes back to a community meeting three weeks earlier, when Vic is asked by her goddaughter Bernadette to watch the girls on the soccer team Bernadette’s coaching accept an award.  Before the girls can go onstage for the award, the meeting dissolves into chaos.  The issue at stake is the development of an area on the Chicago lake front, and passions are running high on all sides of the issue.

It’s V. I.’s birthday, and after the meeting she and Bernie head to the newly chic Forty Seventh Street to meet V. I.’s significant other for a drink to celebrate.  As the women walk under a viaduct they hear the tinny sound of a toy piano and a woman’s voice accompanying the music.  The only words they can make out are “savage” and “cruel,” but Bernie immediately recognizes the song as one written years ago by Lydia Zamir, a song that has become an anthem to those fighting injustice against women.

Trying to help the woman who is singing, obviously homeless, and in need of mental health services, Vic and Bernie are confronted by a couple.  Vic recognizes the man as Coop, the man who disrupted the community meeting, and a woman who say that they are protecting the musician from “busybodies.”  Reluctantly, Vic and Bernie leave, wanting to help but not knowing quite how.

Dead Land refers to the city’s area that caused the disruption of the community meeting.  A shadowy coalition of big business and Chicago officials have plans to make it into a millionaires’ resort with a golf course, a marina, and luxury homes, while a group of residents, with Coop in the forefront, are hoping for a beach and a playground and want details of any proposed plan before a vote is taken.

Vic’s investigation leads her to discover that the homeless singer is indeed Lydia Zamir.  Delving into Lydia’s background in an effort get her the help she needs, V. I. reads about a mass shooting four years earlier at a music festival that involved Lydia and killed her boyfriend, Hector Palurdo, an environmental activist with ties to his late father’s native Chile.

Then things begin to spiral out of control, with the disappearance of the homeless woman as well as Coop, and the strange proposal that Vic receives from the Global Entertainment conglomerate that offers her an enormous amount of money if she will allow them to follow her as she attempts to find Lydia.

It’s always a pleasure to see Vic again, scouring the streets of the Windy City searching for answers.  And this case takes her to the plains of Kansas as well, home of the man convicted of the murders of seventeen people at the music festival.  There’s no question that Arthur Morton was guilty, but as V. I. looks into the murders, she realizes that it involves more than just the shooter.  As Vic connects the dots between the land issue confronting the voters in her city and the mass murders in Kansas, she unearths corruption and evil in both places.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.




SHELL GAME by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

Every novel by Sara Paretsky is wonderful, and her latest is no exception.  Shell Game brings Chicago-based private detective V. I. Warshawski into the all-too-timely issue of immigration, both legal and illegal, that is facing the United States now.

Shell Game opens with V. I. (Vic) making her way through the woods with a Cook County deputy sheriff and Felix Herschel, the nephew of her dearest friend Lotty.  Felix was contacted by the authorities to identify the brutalized body of a dead man who had Felix’s name and phone number on a note in his jean pocket.  His response to the officer in charge, Lieutenant McGivney, and V. I. when seeing the body strikes them both as strange.  “I don’t know him.  Where is he from?”

Felix, a Canadian citizen, is a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology and is active in the university’s Engineers for a Free State.  He tells Vic that he and several other international students had been picked up by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities a few weeks earlier, and he had been held for several hours by ICE without benefit of legal representation before he was released.  Although ICE said it was checking on the immigration status of all foreign students, Felix said that only students from the Middle East or South America were actually detained.  As a favor to Lotty, Vic is willing to look into the case, but Felix will tell her nothing, and without his help there’s not much she can do.

The next morning V. I. is greeted at her apartment house by an unexpected visitor.  It’s her niece Harmony, the daughter of her former husband’s sister.  Harmony has come to Chicago to look for her sister Reno who had arrived in the city several weeks earlier to look for a job.  She got one through her Uncle Dick, Vic’s ex, but he was less than enthusiastic to see his niece and told her that this was the only favor he was doing for her and not to bother him again.

All Harmony knows about what happened to Reno is that she obtained a job at Rest EZ, a payday loan company, and that shortly after she started she received a promotion and the opportunity to fly to the Caribbean for the company’s Mardi Gras party.  When Reno returned she was upset and agitated but wouldn’t tell her sister more than that.  Becoming upset herself, Harmony flew from Oregon to Chicago to talk to Reno, but Reno is no longer working for Rest EZ nor is she at her apartment.  Their Uncle Dick professes to know nothing about this and to care less, so it’s up to “Auntie Vic” to find Reno.

As always, Vic is the person you want if you need a private investigator.  She is smart, determined, loyal, and tough.  And she’s always on the side of the  underdog.

Ms. Paretsky joins current authors who infuse their mysteries with current events; these include Julia Keller’s novels concerning drug abuse and Auzma Kahanet Khan’s on war refugees.  In addition to being exciting books with strong protagonists and stories, they bring readers issues straight from the headlines.  Shell Game is another example of Sara Paretsky’s skill in invoking a strong heroine in today’s world.

You can read more about her at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

FALLOUT by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

The case moves from Chicago to Lawrence, Kansas, but V.I. Warshawski is the same.  She’s as tough, persevering, and smart as ever.

The Windy City has been V.I.’s home base since the beginning of Sara Paretsky’s series, but an unusual missing persons case is drawing her to Lawrence.  Bernadine Fouchard is the goddaughter of V.I.’s cousin Boom-Boom, and Bernadine and her friend Angela ask V.I. to look into the disappearance of Angela’s cousin August Veriden.  August is a young man who works as a trainer at a Chicago gym while trying to make a living as a filmmaker, but he has taken a leave of absence from the Six-Points Gym and isn’t answering Angela’s calls or texts.

To make matters worse, the gym has been vandalized and it’s possible that drugs are missing from the medical-supply closet.  August is the only missing employee who has a key, so he is a person of interest to the police.  When V.I. goes to his apartment house she finds that he hasn’t been there in several days and that his apartment has been searched.  V.I. doesn’t know if the intruders found what they were looking for, but her concern is intensifying.

Searching August’s website, V. I. comes across a personal message written by Emerald Ferring, a black actress with a brief career in movies and a longer one in television.  V. I. goes to Emerald’s house, and after talking with neighbors she finds out that Emerald left Chicago with August ten days earlier.  Emerald had told them that she and August were going to her home town of Lawrence to film a documentary about her life.  No one has heard from them since.

Now truly worried, V.I. drives to Lawrence.  Her essentials packed (picklocks, gun, ammunition, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, laptop, iPad), she and her dog Peppy begin the search that takes them from an Army base, the city’s police station, its historical society, and the University of Kansas campus to the desolate bomb site outside the city where a Titan missile once stood in possible preparation for a war against the Soviet Union.  Making the search more difficult is the race factor–she’s white, Emerald and August are black–and Kansas, even the liberal city of Lawrence, has a mixed and contradictory racial history.

V.I.’s loneliness away from her home and her friends, her growing awareness of the physical and emotional distance between herself and her lover who is in Europe, and the invisible line that still separates whites from blacks in both Chicago and Kansas all add to the gravitas of the book.  One comes away from every Paretsky book feeling the depth of the protagonist’s and the author’s feelings about social injustice, whatever forms it takes.  More than simply a mystery, Fallout is a book that explores social issues, racial tensions, and family relationships.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at this website.

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

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.



CRITICAL MASS by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. (Vic) Warshawski’s friend Lottie Herschel was rescued from the Holocaust, transported to England on the Kindertransport with another young girl, Kathe Saginor.  That was more than seventy years ago, but the long arm of history has reached into present-day Chicago, bringing with it lies, betrayals, and murder.

Lottie was a child of the upper middle class in Vienna before the war.  Her playmate Kathe was the granddaughter of the Herschels’ seamstress.  Kathe’s own mother, Martina, was too involved in her scientific career to care for her daughter.

The two girls were separated upon their arrival in England and didn’t see each other for years afterward.  They led very different lives until Kathe, now renamed Kitty, ended up in Chicago, the city where Lotte resides and has a medical practice.  Lotte never married, but Kitty married an American serviceman and has a daughter, Judy, who became a drug addict and dealer.  It is Judy whose story precipitates Vic’s involvement in Lotte and Kitty’s tangled histories.

Searching for Judy, Vic finds an abandoned crystal meth-making house, a starved dog, and a man’s corpse.  When Vic tells Kitty what she has found, Kitty lets Vic know in no uncertain terms that she has no interest in where her daughter is or what trouble she is in now.

But Kitty is very concerned about Judy’s son Martin, who left their home and his job ten days ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Cordell Breen, the president of the company where Martin works as a computer programmer, wasn’t told that Martin hasn’t been at work for more than a week, and he is now concerned that the young man may have taken some important confidential information with him.

Critical Mass goes back and forth between the present in Chicago and the late thirties and early forties in Vienna.  Martin’s great-grandmother, Martina, was a brilliant physicist who lost her research and teaching jobs because she was Jewish.  She continued as best she could, reading scientific journals and making copious equations about heavy water and atomic molecules, often disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the time.  Her research was ignored due to her religion and gender, but she persevered.  Sent to a concentration camp during the war, Martina was never heard from again.

Despite opposition from Kitty and Lotte, Vic decides to look for Judy and eventually for Martin.  This involves her with the family of Benjamin Dzornen, Martina’s mentor in Vienna and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics.  The remaining Dzornens, his two daughters and a son, have only contempt for Kitty, her daughter, and her grandson.  There’s a secret connecting these families–the Herschels, the Saginors, and the Dzornens–and Vic is determined to find out what it is, in addition to locating Martin and Judy.

V. I. is, as always, tough, determined, and willing to put herself in dangerous situations to get at the truth.  Warned off by friends and foes alike, she continues her search in order to ferret out the story of Kitty’s family.  Critical Mass is a powerful novel with fascinating characters, and the plot resonates with historical truths many people would prefer to forget.

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

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





BODY WORK by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. Warshawski is back, and that’s great news. The heroine of more than a dozen previous mystery novels, this tough Chicago P.I. never disappoints.

As she’s done in her previous books, Sara Paretsky puts layer on top of layer of motives and crimes for Vic to unpack. Vic’s young cousin Petra, whom we met previously in Hardball, is back.  Petra is young, spoiled, and needy, but she’s a relative, and Vic has a hard time saying “no” to her.  This time Petra has a part-time job at a very edgy nightclub in Chicago that is featuring The Body Artist as its main attraction.

The Body Artist’s act is composed of sitting on a stool on the stage, nude except for a thong and the exquisite artwork that covers much of her body, while erotic photos are flashed across a screen in back of her and two burka-clad figures dance erotically alongside her.  In addition, members of the audience are invited to come up to The Body Artist and paint whatever they wish on her body.

Petra calls on Vic one night saying that someone has just tried to kill the Artist, but when Vic arrives at The Gouge club the Artist isn’t interested in cooperating and the club’s manager is rude and hostile.  The following week Petra visits her again with tales of more unpleasantness at The Gouge–out-of-control young guys at one table, a rough-looking middle-aged man at another who’s trying to literally get into Petra’s pants, and a sliver of glass found in one of The Body Artist’s paintbrushes.  And again neither the Artist nor the club’s manager wants to speak to Vic or the police.

On Vic’s third visit to the club, a distraught young woman goes up to the Artist and paints a design on her body.  When a man in the audience sees the design, he loses all control and tries to confront her.  She flees the club and Vic runs after her,  just in time to see her shot and to cradle her body while she bleeds to death.

A few days later the young man from the club, who has been under suspicion for the murder, is found comatose in his apartment and admitted to the jail’s hospital.  His father comes to Vic’s office to ask her to investigate.  He doesn’t believe his son is guilty, but as the young man is unable to speak and tell his story, Vic needs to investigate.

There are a lot of intersecting story lines. Everyone from an Iraqi veteran with post traumatic stress syndrome, Ukrainian mobsters, a Mexican-American family coping with the death of a daughter, a big-time lawyer with a strange interest in the aforementioned family, and the owner of Club Gouge makes an appearance.  None of them will talk to Vic or even admit there are any problems.

Vic is surrounded by her usual group:  her landlord Mr. Contreras; her physician friend Lotte; her lover Jake.  Lotte in particular wants to know why Vic is always putting herself in danger, and Vic is trying to figure out the answer to that question herself.  Mortality is creeping into Vic’s consciousness.  She’s getting older and more reflective, and she’s wondering why she has this need to fight all the battles of the world.  Is it necessary?  Is it right?  And can she always win, or is it impossible to right all the wrongs she sees?

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