Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Body Work by Sara Paretsky Takes On the War in Iraq and Still Tells a Good Story

Details are important. Last week's episode of SouthLAnd taught me that as I watched it a few moments ago (simultaneously clearing off my DVR and blogging). It opens with a shot of a nightstand, the sleeping detective Lydia Adams (played by the excellent Regina King) on the bed next to the table. On Adams' bedside table are a few seemingly random things: water, phone, lotion.

But those items speak volumes about the character, and I'm willing to bet some set designer got paid a pretty penny to scatter them carefully, making sure they were just so. The water? Fiji -- not the cheapest, not the most expensive. A water most likely pulled off the shelves of a convenience store that counts on its customers' need to refresh themselves quickly, and who are willing to buy a more expensive brand for ease of purchase. Lotion, Neutrogena -- again, not expensive and not cheap. Probably bought during a break in Adams' busy day at a neighborhood pharmacy. The phone -- and the small notepad -- signify much in their closeness to Adams as she sleeps. Waiting, at the ready, in case a call comes in during the night.

Lydia Adams is a homicide detective, and everything on her nightstand tells us she lives for her job. Sara Paretsky's private detective V. I. Warshawski is a similar sort of detective, albeit a private one. Paretsky has written about the PI's escapades for more than twenty years. The first book in the series was published in 1982. Body Work, Warshawski's latest adventure, was released last year.

Paretsky writes hardboiled detective stories, set in the grimy, dangerous streets of Chicago. Warshawski, born on the city's crime-ridden, poverty-stricken southside, is no stranger to the seamier side of life in the Windy City. Her family and background have figured largely in the series; her father was a Chicago police officer, her mother an Italian-born homemaker. Rather than treating the series and her main character as strictly fictional (as, for example, Sue Grafton does in her Kinsey Milhone series), Paretsky adds many realistic touches to her stories. The setting is definitely (and recognizably) the real-life Chicago. Warshawski ages in real-time, and her stories incorporate current events.

In Body Work, Paretsky takes on the war in Iraq. Let me preface my opinion of the book by stating that I don't generally like war stories, nor do I seek out fiction based on the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As someone who has become an adult in the 2000s, I experienced first-hand the impact of 9/11 and have watched as friends and acquaintances have been deployed to fight in the wars those attacks caused. As a result, I shy away from reading fiction about this time. However, I've read every book by Paretsky and wasn't about to interrupt my reading of the Warshawski series because of the subject matter of one book.

When a young woman is killed outside a controversial new nightclub, Warshawski is hired by the suspect's family to clear his name. The suspect happens to be an Iraqi War veteran, a man whose family feels has been changed by his participation in the war. However, they don't feel he is capable of murder. Warshawski takes the case, but can't wholeheartedly deny the possibility that the vet did commit this crime. The deeper she digs, though, the more corruption she finds -- and the more she begins to believe he may be innocent after all.

Paretsky is a masterful storyteller, and Body Work is no exception. After a couple of bumpy books in the series, Paretsky seems to have regained her footing with both 2009's Hardball (read my review here) and this latest novel. For more about Paretsky and the fabulous female detective V.I. Warshawski, you can read Paretsky's blog. (And, on a side note, be sure to watch SouthLAnd on TNT on Tuesday nights at 10/9 central.)

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