It’s no mystery why almost 70 mystery lovers packed Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park on a hot summer evening last week. Sara Paretsky was stopping in to promote Fire Sale, the 12th and latest book in her V. I. Warshawski series.
V.I. (for Victoria Iphigenia) is one of the new breed of crime fiction detectives: a tough-minded, independent feminist who’s equally capable of feeling moral outrage, compassion, anger and vulnerability. Paretsky’s been at this since 1982, when V.I first appeared in Indemnity Only. Now an award-winning, best-selling author, she’s credited with helping to revolutionize the genre.
Although she lives in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago (all the books are set in and around the city), Paretsky has been jumping states on this tour. But the fact that she made time for fans at Centuries & Sleuths didn’t surprise owner Augie Aleksy, who hosted her three times before at the store’s previous Oak Park location.
“Sara stays firm and gets to independent book stores,” he said. “She’s a very gracious person.”
In 1986, Paretsky co-founded Sisters in Crime, a support and anti-discrimination group for female mystery writers. Aleksy recalled that Paretsky, who holds a PhD and MBA from the University of Chicago and worked as a marketing manager for CNA Insurance until she hit it big as a writer, gathered the first statistics about the lack of shelf space, ad space and time in print for female mystery authors (a situation, he adds, that’s no longer true.)
A tall, elegant woman with cropped white hair and an approachable, friendly manner, Paretsky entered Centuries & Sleuths to reverential applause. She read from the beginning of Fire Sale (complete with voices”low and gruff for a cop, perky for a nurse and her own voice for V.I.) and then took questions from the audience.
It was during the Q-and-A that Paretsky confessed it was reading other crime fiction, especially Raymond Chandler, that spurred her to write her own. “I was struck in a negative way by the way women appeared. Women who put themselves forward sexually were responsible for all the mayhem. I wanted to turn the tables on Chandler”I’m petty and vengeful,” Paretsky declared, with a smile.
The character of V.I. occurred to her during a meeting while she was working at CNA, she confessed. Part of the “generation of women” who first moved up into management positions, Paretsky said she’d dealt with her share of misogynist bosses. This day, one of the worst of them was proposing yet another dumb idea. As she nodded pleasantly, she imagined a thought bubble over her own head, with “You turkey bird” inside.
And then her detective appeared to her, “a woman like me and my friends, doing a job for the first time, but not afraid to say what was in the bubble. With guts. I went home and started to work,” she said.
Making V.I. a specialist in white collar crime was a natural for Paretsky. And it allows her to tackle difficult social and political issues within the framework of the stories.
“Crime fiction is where law, justice and society come together. It’s the natural form of fiction to think about social justice,” she explained. “[White collar] crime is an underexplored area, while it grows larger and more lavish by the day.”
Fire Sale is set in Southeast Chicago, where V.I. grew up (she lives in Lakeview now). She’s lured back by her old high school basketball coach, who’s dying of cancer and needs a fill-in.
It’s a part of the city that particularly interests Paretsky because, she explained, “since the U.S. started outsourcing steelmaking, [Southeast Chicago] has 40 to 50 percent chronic unemployment, gangs, all the problems,” but also the last open wetlands in the city limits. With this book, she celebrates “the gallantry of the community, the spirit of the people who live there and try to make a life there.”
V.I. ends up tangling with By-Smart, a discount store behemoth that pays below-poverty wages and could end up being the only employer left in Southeast Chicago. Sound familiar?
“This is a work of fiction! It’s not Wal-Mart,” announced Paretsky with tongue firmly in cheek.
After taking a final question, Paretsky stayed to sign books. The line curled all the way to the back of the small, independent store.