Thursday, May 24, 2012

V.I. Warshawski Tackles Politics and Mental Illness in Sara Paretsky's Breakdown

Sara Paretsky has long been one of my favorite authors, not just one of my favorite genre authors. Her mystery series, set in Chicago and featuring private investigator V.I. Warshawski, is simply one of the best. Beginning with the first V.I. novel Indeminity Only in 1982, Paretsky has penned fifteen V.I. series novels. Breakdown is the latest, published in January, and features some of V.I.'s best detecting and Paretsky's best writing.

Series novels often get off track somewhere after ten or so novels. I've noticed this even in series I love, including Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series, Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, and, yes -- even Sara Paretsky's V.I. series. With Breakdown, however, Paretsky makes a turn back to the heart of the series she began thirty years ago.

V.I. Warshawski is a former lawyer who abandoned the corporate world and went into private investigation practice in order to more easily hold up her ideals -- although "ease" is not exactly in her vocabulary. Standing firmly to her ideals, however, does come easy to the fearless (sometimes to a fault) detective. As the novel begins, V.I. is attending an event for a television personality she strongly dislikes. After making this apparent to him upon their meeting, V.I. flees the party in favor of visiting an old cemetery.

The cemetery isn't her idea of a good time, but an answer to her cousin Petra's panicked call regarding some girls she works with at a local nonprofit. Among the old mausoleums and broken statues, V.I. finds a coven-like circle of teenage girls -- and a murder victim. As V.I. works to solve the crime without a paying client prompting her to do so, Paretsky ties in themes that have occurred freqently throughout the series: women's issues, politics, the long-lasting effects of the Holocaust, and -- of course -- crime in all its various manifestations.

The case takes V.I. to the nearest state psychiatric hospital, which houses both a regular ward for short-term, indigent patients and a lockdown unit for those accused of committing crimes. Mental illness is explored in Breakdown through both this avenue, as well as a look at an old friendship of V.I.'s -- a college friend who has spent time in and out of mental health treatment centers for schzophrenia.

Although with all of these themes, Breakdown could quickly become fragmented and disjointed, Paretsky ties everything together beautifully from beginning to end. The plot flows seamlessly, despite the multiple subplots and semi-red herrings thrown into the mix. V.I., although older, is at her best. She works tirelessly to solve the murder of a man she doesn't know, while simultaneously protecting her cousin Petra and the girls she found that first night in the cemetery. She is a champion of lost causes, but somehow manages to turn things around so that all is not lost. She is the ultimate female hero, rough around the edges but with a heart of gold.

Paretsky in front of V.I.'s childhood home, 1989
(photo via
Sara Paretsky is the author of more than two dozen books, primarily fiction, but some nonfiction, as well. In addition to the V.I. Warshawksi series, she has written the two standalone novels Ghost Country and Bleeding Kansas and the short story collections Windy City Blues and V.I. x3. You can follow her on Twitter, friend her on Facebook, or visit her website for more information about her and her writing.

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