Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Introducing V. I. Warshawski

This is the novel that introduced Chicago private investigator V. I. Warshawski back in 1982. At that time, the book was something of a revelation. Female P.I.s were few and far between, especially hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners types. There were, of course, plenty of Miss Marples and the like, solving mostly gentile puzzle mysteries, sometimes with the assistance of their cats. But hardly any women P.I.s were out there kicking ass and taking names.

Then, in 1982, readers were introduced to both Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone and Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, and the world of crime fiction was never the same again. Thirty-four years later, though, this book does not seem nearly as special as it once did. Thanks largely to the efforts of Paretsky and Grafton, there are any number of hard-boiled female investigators out there, and so reading a book like this is no longer nearly as eye-opening and exciting as it was back then.

As the story opens, a mysterious client insists on a late night meeting with V.I., assuming that she is a male. Once he discovers that she's a "girl," he's not so sure that he wants to entrust her with something serious. But V.I. is tired after a long day and isn't about to take any sexist crap from the guy. She convinces him that she can get the job done and he finally identifies himself as the wealthy officer of a large bank in downtown Chicago. He's concerned that his son, Peter, has fallen in love with the "wrong" girl and is living in a hovel with a bunch of unwashed hippies or other such riff-raff. The girl is now missing; the son blames his father for scaring her away and insists that he will never come home again until he is reunited with his lost love.

The man hires V. I. to find the missing young woman so that peace can be restored between him and his son. However, V. I. no sooner begins her investigation than she discovers the body of Peter, the young lover, shot to death in the kitchen of his apartment. Inevitably all hell breaks loose. V. I. is determined to find the killer because she discovered the body. The cops, naturally, want her the hell off the case, but she tells them to shove it and goes about her business--much more in the fashion of Phillip Marlowe than Jessica Fletcher. There are a lot of nasty customers involved in this case; V.I. is in serious physical danger, and virtually no one takes her seriously because of her gender. The odds, to say the least, are long.

Truth to tell, the story itself has some serious holes in it, and the resolution depends on more than a couple of amazing coincidences that stretch credulity to the limit. In a day and age when tough female detectives are virtually a dime a dozen, the reader starts to notice such things, but when this book initially appeared, the character of V. I. Warshawski was such a revelation that one didn't notice them. This book would launch a long series of novels featuring Warshawski; both she and her creator were true trailblazers in the world of crime fiction, and the fact that the world has caught up with V. I. is a tribute to both of them. Three stars for the story itself; five stars for being instrumental in breaking the glass ceiling in crime fiction.

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