Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Crime Fiction: Breakdown by Sara Paretsky

(Editor’s note: The following piece comes from Jim Napier, a Quebec resident and newspaper columnist. His book reviews have been featured in several Canadian papers and on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Crime Time, Reviewing the Evidence, and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.)

Chicago-based crime writer Sara Paretsky has long dominated the contemporary hard-boiled private-eye genre with fast-paced tales featuring her indefatigable, often headstrong sleuth, V.I. Warshawski. With more brass than a two-dollar watch and an attitude that would wear down a KGB interrogator, V.I. is a one-person wrecking crew, cutting through the carefully constructed edifices that shield bad people in high places, and leaving destruction, but also light, in her wake.

In Breakdown (Putnam), V.I. is summoned by her cousin Petra to find a group of seven pre-teens who’ve gone missing. Warshawski soon finds herself in an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Chicago in the midst of a summer storm and (if you’ll excuse the expression) the dead of night. Wearing a sodden party frock and grungy trainers, the 50-something P.I. is in no mood for being messing with when she runs across those seven youngsters holding a vampire ritual and trying to call up Camilla, Queen of the Dead. The kids get more than they bargained for when they stumble upon a corpse impaled on a piece of rebar and lying on a slab, the dead man’s blood still fresh. Making matters worse, someone has heard the commotion and called the cops. V.I. manages to get the kids away from the crime scene and back to one of their parent’s apartment, but not without incident: one of them claims to have seen someone, likely the killer. Even more disturbingly, another member of the group lost her cell phone in the cemetery: the girl may have photographed the killer, and if so, her phone could be used to track her down.

Undaunted by a little mud and murder, V.I. finally makes her way to the ballroom event where she’d been headed before receiving Petra’s frantic call. The object of attention is Wade Lawlor, doyen of the political right and host of a media-dominating TV show on the Global Entertainment Network. Lawlor has the public’s ear, and his word can make or break anyone with political ambitions. He’s hitched his wagon to local senatorial candidate Helen Kendrick, another right-winger, whose fortunes stem from her husband’s corporate interests. Lawlor has supported a group that, among other right-wing endeavors, disputes President Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship, and he and Warshawski are light-years apart in their thinking. They trade thinly veiled insults, and before long V.I. has made yet another important enemy.

V.I. is attending this ballroom function at the request of Murray Ryerson, a journalist with whom she’s worked on a number of investigative pieces. Murray’s latest cause is the plight of the mentally ill, both on and off the street. The project piques V.I.’s interest, not least because she has a good friend from her college days who has spent most of her own life battling mental issues. When V.I. learns that Lawlor helped to axe Ryerson’s investigative series before it even got off the ground, her hackles are raised. Lawlor’s favorite pastime is washing other people’s laundry in public. Does the media mogul himself have something to hide?

Despite its cosmopolitan air, the Windy City is really just one big -- if not always happy -- family, and V.I. soon discovers that the victim in the cemetery has ties to the law firm presided over by her own ex-husband. Adding further to the rapidly expanding fog of conflicting interests, one of the girls she found at the cemetery is the daughter of Sophie Durango, who’s running for the same senatorial seat sought by Lawlor darling Helen Kendrick. When Lawlor goes after Durango on his show, Warshawski decides it’s time to get involved.

In Breakdown, author Paretsky weaves a wide-ranging tale involving death in an abandoned graveyard, the all-too-cozy relationship between politicians and the media, and the plight of the mentally ill into a single fast-paced plot. In the hands of a lesser writer this ambitious project might well have degenerated into a tangled skein of storytelling threads, but Paretsky pulls it off in trumps. Breakdown is a timely yarn, given the current electoral circus in the United States, and Paretsky’s political arrows strike all too close to home.

Like her plucky protagonist, Sara Paretsky has lost none of her edge.

READ MORE:The Lady Speaks Her Mind,” by Jim Napier (Spinetingler Magazine).

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