I’m listening to my first Sara Paretsky novel right now, her 2005 V.I. Warshawski mystery Fire Sale. I’ve been meaning to read Paretsky for a while, ever since reading about her in Maureen Corrigan’s book Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, where Corrigan has a chapter on mystery novels and praises Paretsky highly. With the caveat in mind that I am more likely to like a book I listen to than one I read on paper, I’m really enjoying the story so far. The novel is set in Chicago, and Warshawski is a private investigator. She has a thriving business, but in this novel, she is involved in a investigation she won’t be paid for: a case of arson and murder that she stumbles upon after agreeing to serve as a substitute basketball coach at her old South Chicago high school. The mother of one of the players asks her to investigate strange happenings at the factory where she works, and the next thing she knows, she’s caught up in a story of big business and corporate intrigue.
The basketball coaching and the investigation force her to spend a lot of time in South Chicago where she is confronted by her past, which was a harsh one. This novel doesn’t give very many details, but we do find out she lost her mother when she was young, and that she grew up to be a tough street fighter. In this novel, she still has that toughness, but also the perspective and experience of a woman who has seen more of the world. She is brave and courageous, although not without fear, and there’s a certain amount of sadness to her character, which, of course, is not at all surprising for someone who makes a living as an investigator.
The plot is overtly political, as Warshawski investigates a big Walmart-like corporation that exploits its workers and is run by a family full of nasty, suspicious, racist tightwads. The fact that they claim to be committed evangelical Christians makes them even worse. I suppose the argument here is a little too easy and too obvious — the religious characters are hypocrites, or at least the rich ones are, and all big business owners care about nothing at all but making money. But still, Paretsky’s picture of how families struggle to make a living working in low-paying jobs and are first exploited so they can barely get by and then condemned for the very fact that they struggle is a powerful one. Paretsky explores the complicated causes of poverty on the south side and why it is so many young people struggle in school and so many teenage girls get pregnant, while the big business owners live in their gated mansions in the suburbs, getting rich through their stinginess. The ideas and issues may be familiar, but Paretsky does a good job bringing them to life.