Sarah Paretsky is the creator of tough, street-wise, half-Polish, half-Italian, feminist detective V.(for Victoria) I.(for Iphigenia) Warshawski. Paretsky had wanted to create such a character "to try to combat some of the typical sexual stereotypes in literature" for several years while working as an advertising manager at CNA, a large insurance company. She grew up in Kansas, paid her way through the University of Kansas, majoring in political science and Russian, and went on to an M.B.A. (1977) and Ph.D. in history (1977) at the University of Chicago. She made several false starts on her detective. "In 1979," she said, "I realized that I was trying to create a character who was aping the Raymond Chandler tradition, only in female form, and what I really wanted was a woman who was doing what I was doing, which was trying to make a success in a field traditionally dominated by men." 1
In the first Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only (1982), the detective is hired to find a woman missing from the University of Chicago. Instead she finds her client's murdered son; as the two plot strands weave, a collusion between gangsters, a union leader, and insurance agents emerges -- as does the identity of her client. Reviewer Robin Winks described the novel as "gritty." In Deadlock (1984) she investigates the death of her cousin, hockey great Boom Boom Warshawski. Once again she discovers an unholy alliance of insurers, unions, and politicians. But in this novel the character of Warshawski becomes clearer, as does her apartment building, its landlord, his dog and other details that would furnish a distinctive universe. In the third novel, Killing Orders (1985), Warshawski is hired by an aunt to find five million dollars worth of stock certificates missing from a monastery. When the aunt immediately abandons the quest, and Warshawski is attacked by thugs who splash her with acid and burn her apartment, she redoubles her efforts, revealing the shared blame of a secret Catholic organization with big business and organized crime.
"There are few private eyes anywhere about whom we are told so much," The New Yorker noted. Indeed Warshawski's distaste for house-cleaning, dish-washing, and bill-paying began to be viewed as hallmarks of her liberation. "I don't enjoy exercise," remarks Warshawski in Killing Orders, "But it beats dieting" (19). She lives in an apartment building near Wrigley Field, and she runs with Peppy and Mitch, the dogs of her downstairs neighbor, the retired Mr. Conteras. Her confidante is Dr. Lotty Herschel, a Viennese doctor who runs a storefront clinic.
The three novels written in the late 1980s (Bitter Medicine, 1987; Blood Shot, 1988; Burn Marks, 1990) show Paretsky adapting her detective as a vehicle of social and political comment in the tradition of Ross Macdonald. Burn Marks, for example, concerns itself with the destruction of "single resident only" hotels to make way for new office buildings. Warshawski also heeds the call of family, visiting her relatives and ethnic neighborhood often. Where male detectives are usually without family, Warshawski is concerned about the homeless and clinics for the poor, but on-guard against old boyfriends (one a policenman, the other a lawyer) and the come-ons of male reporters, politicians, and businessmen. "What keeps us with Warshawski all the way is a dogged decency and an essential sweetness of character behind her shrewdness," writes Paul Johnson in the Chicago Tribune: She "is one of the finest, if not the finest, of the female first-person shamuses who have appeared in printed over the last decade." 2
Guardian Angel (1992) and Guardian Angel (1994) accented Paretsky's social vision, to the point that Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times wrote "the poor, the weak, the young, the old, the female, the single and the black tend to be good, and the rich, the strong, the middle-aged, the married and the WASPish are likely to be evil." 3 A collection of short pieces, Windy City Blues (1995) was found less satisfying by most reviewers.
Paretsky is also the most important hard-boiled writer to use Chicago, a notoriously tough town, as her turf. Frederic Brown had used the city as a setting for his detectives Am and Ed Hunter, employees of the Starlock Agency, in six books between 1947 and 1963, and Thomas B. Dewey turned out eighteen novels about Mac, a detective for the International Agency, in the same period, but neither series is distinguished. 4 Paretsky's descriptions of Chicago freeways, the lakefront, the Loop, and famous buildings are as distinctive as Chandler and Macdonald's evocations of L.A. Further, she gives readers a view of the family, friends, and personal problems of the detective, something that Macdonald, her nearest colleague, only hinted at, but on which other divisions of the genre, such as the police novels of Joseph Wambaugh, began to focus. Paretsky has been very active on the web, in such groups as Sisters in Crime, and in discussions of the gender politics of the detective novel.
Paretsky's work has been sparingly filmed, perhaps because of its rearrangements of genre expectations. Indemnity Only was filmed as V.I. Warshawski (1991) starring Kathleen Turner, and there were B.B.C. Radio IV adaptations of Deadlock and Killing Orders, both in 1995. Paretsky's Ghost Country (1998) continued her concern for the urban homeless, but is not a mystery and does not feature Warshawski, who returned in Hard Time (1999). Since then she has published Total Recall (2001), a superior effort that explores the Holocaust past of sidekick Lotty Herschel; a collection of Warshawsky stories titled V.I. x2 (2002),Blacklist (2003), and Fire Sale (2005). Blacklist is a critique, in part, of Bush Administration's post 9/11 measures, for which Paretsky seems to feel she (and the Dixie Chicks) have taken some heat. She explains at her website.
1 Sara Paretsky, in Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 59, 307-308, 2 New Yorker and Paul Johnson in Contemporary Authors, ibid. Original Chicago Tribune, n.p., n.d. 3 Christopher Lehman-Haupt, ibid., 4 Lists of the works of Brown and Dewey can be found in Niebuhr, 39-41 and 64-68 in the bibliography. 5 Vincent Patrick, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 55, p. 200; original in New York Times Book Review, Ed Weiner, ibid.