A new crime story featuring Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is always something I look forward to. The most recent is Hardball (2009), and I’ll talk about that another day. But first I’d like to introduce Paretsky and her feisty heroine because I find she is relatively unknown to Australian readers. There are so far fifteen V.I. Warshawski stories, starting with Indemnity Only in 1982, through to Hardball in 2009. Tunnel Vision, the book I’m writing about today, comes about half way through, in 1994.
One of the reasons I like Paretsky’s stories is that they deal with corporate crime and institutional corruption. These are huge blights on society, and cause massive problems for ordinary people, yet not many detective writers deal with this sort of crime. Paretsky makes it her mission to do so.
Paretsky, who was born in 1947 in Kansas, came of age at the time of student protests over civil rights and the Vietnam war, and the rise of the feminist movement. She has never lost her desire to defend the weak from the strong, and has a special concern for women. Her detective, Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, is one of the first strong and independent female private detectives. ‘I loved detective fiction,’ Paretsky says, ‘but I was troubled by the way women were traditionally portrayed in that genre—they always seemed to be either evil or powerless. I thought it was time for a tough, smart, likable female private investigator, and that’s how VI came to life’.
Paretsky has a PhD in history, but in order to find a job, did an MBA in finance as well. She then worked as marketing manager for a large insurance firm for 10 years before leaving to write full time. She says that her experience in the financial world has been invaluable background for writing about white-collar crime. Her targets include the insurance industry, the health system, the Catholic church, environmental polluters, the security industry and the police force. In Tunnel Vision, she tackles homelessness and child abuse, corruption and exploitation in the construction industry, international economic sanction breaking and money laundering. Paretsky says that as well as telling a story, she is exploring social realities.
In Tunnel Vision, V.I is dealing with several different investigations at once, and this is characteristic of the way Paretsky structures her plots. V.I. becomes involved with the fate of a homeless family hiding in the building where she has an office, she looks for a missing child and she investigates building approval and construction irregularities which in turn relate to money laundering by a large multinational. There is a link between all these stories which is more or less resolved by the end. Her method of detecting is to confront people she suspects, who are often rich and powerful, so as to stir up a response from them. This is always dangerous; as one of her friends says ‘I worry, Vic, when you decide to intervene in other people’s lives. Someone usually suffers. It’s often you’. Sometimes the reader can feel that she goes too far with what another character calls her own ‘private version of justice’. V.I lives and works in Chicago, and the tunnels in Tunnel Vision are real. They were built under Chicago to enable freight deliveries direct to buildings, and were abandoned to rats and the homeless in the 1950s. But the ‘tunnel vision’ of the title applies as well to VI’s own view of the world.
One of the problems in writing about corporate crime is how the criminals can be caught. In police procedurals, they can usually bring a case against the crooks, though often they can only stop the immediate fiddle, whatever it is. For a private detective like Warshawski, this problem is greatly magnified, as she has to convince either the press or the police that rich and powerful people are involved in wrong doing – and that is usually very difficult. So quite often, and this is true for Tunnel Vision, some of the villains get away with their crimes, or manage to deflect the blame onto their henchmen.
All in all, the Paretsky stories are an exciting, but not always comfortable read.
Paretsky is deeply critical of the level of corporate corruption in present day America. ‘My own stories’, she writes, ‘come to me from events around me, but the events around me today are defying my ability to turn them into stories. I have often written about corporate corruption, and the cynical indifference of large institutions to the well-being of ordinary citizens. But Enron and Halliburton defy even my imagination.’ She fights back through VI Warshawski. ‘I hate my detective to be powerless’, she says, ‘but I can’t have her act like a Robert Ludlum superhero, forcing the FBI to their knees – as much as I’d like to – and walking off unharmed because my stories rely too much on the world of the real. . …[But] she won’t be silenced, she won’t sell out her friends. That is the best I can offer her and my readers in the world today’.
If you’d like to find out more about Paretsky’s books, she has a website, and you can read the first chapter of her new book Hardball there.