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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.