Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky

Meeting an anonymous client late on a sizzling summer night is asking for trouble. But trouble is Chicago private eye V. I. Warshawski’s specialty. Her client says he’s the prominent banker John Thayer. Turns out he’s not. He says his son’s girlfriend, Anita Hill, is missing. Turns out that’s not her real name. V. I.’s search turns up someone soon enough—the real John Thayer’s son, and he’s dead. Who’s V. I.’s client? Why has she been set up and sent out on a wild-goose chase? By the time she’s got it figured, things are hotter — and deadlier — than Chicago in July. V. I.’s in a desperate race against time. At stake: a young woman’s life.

2012 marks the 30 year anniversary of the first publication of Sara Paretsky's debut novel and after listening to the BBC World Book Club program where she was the guest I decided to pick it up.
You can definitely see that Indemnity Only is a debut novel. There is the minute detail often present in authors' first works, from what exactly their characters wore to what they ate. There are inconsistencies in quantities of family heirlooms and thorough accounts of habits and routines. Things like this could do a book in if there is enough of them and not enough of what keeps the reader turning the pages and rooting for the protagonist. In Paretsky's case the balance was in her favor and she went on to write 14 more V.I. Warshawski novels.
So what was it that tipped the scales? For me it was the characters, the setting and that none of it got lost in those details. V.I., Vic to friends, is a badass with a soft underbelly. She knows martial arts, runs a 7.5 minute mile and isn't afraid to use her fists when the circumstances call for it, she'll help those in need with a complete disregard for her own safety or bottom line. She bristles when anyone questions her choice of profession or competence because she is a woman, but is realistic about her chances against a strong male opponent in single combat. In short V.I. Warshawski is a believable and relatable female character who is just as relevant today as she was 30 years ago, even if her environment is definitely outdated. She actually reminds me of Maria Bello's character in last year's Prime Suspect, I think Vic and Jane would get along.
Secondary characters easily hold their own, even though they don't have quite as much time on the page and more often than not we don't know what they're wearing. I can't decide if my favorite is Lotty of McGraw, a spitfire doctor unfazed by any surprise or a conflicted man comparing himself to King Midas. Or maybe it's Bobby Mallory, who keeps trying to protect his friend's daughter and nearly blows a gasket every time she won't let him.
Another thing to Paretsky's advantage is her ability to establish a sense of the world in which V.I. operates. The book is filled with social issues of the day - women's movement, tensions between the radically-inclined and the police, the divide between classes and the lack of acceptance of those who aren't of the same ancestry across all levels of society. With Vic being firmly working class and not particularly fond of the rich it would have been easy to make her just one of the not-too-priviledged and be done with it, but Paretsky makes her straddle the line in a way. Vic judges people by their actions, not their wealth or position, regardless of where they stand on social issues or how unpopular her opinion. It's clear of course that she is rooting for the little guy, just as Paretsky is, and it's no surprise that it's the working class characters who are the more sympathetic ones, but Warshawski isn't blindly prejudiced and justice and truth are her goals every step of the way. All this makes the story resonate more, makes it more personal, makes one think about how much the world has changed in the last 30 years and how much it hasn't.
I read some V.I. Warshawski novels when I was in high school and remember enjoying them enough to blow through a half-dozen paperbacks in a couple of weeks, but I don't remember particularly noticing the elements that impressed me most this time around. Maybe I should revisit Warshawski before too much time passes, watch her catch some bad guys and learn something about the past while I'm at it.


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