Sara Paretsky

(1947-)

One of the best and most interesting of the hard-boiled private eye to burst out in the early eighties female detective boom -- and certainly the inspiration for so many of them -- was Sara Paretsky's hard-nosed Chicago P.I. V.I. Warshawski.

But if V.I. was an inspiration, the same could be said for the author herself.

Credited with transforming the role and image of women in the crime novel -- and particularly in the private eye novel -- Paretsky has imbued her her long-running, bestselling series with an unapologetically progressive edge, defiant and uncompromising, that has left most of her contemporaries and their lip service liberalism and watered-down feminism in the dust.

Whatever you may think of her politics, though, there's no doubt where Paretsky stands. She means it, man. And she walks it like she talks it, wearing her politics on her sleeve and more than willing to stand up and be heard.

* * * * *

Paretsky was born in Ames, Iowa, but grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. By most accounts, it was a troubled childhood. She was the only girl in a family of five children, her parents fought, and the anti-Semitism of the area soon forced the family to move into a house five miles out of town, despite the fact neither of her parents drove at the time.

"Not everything about living in Kansas was difficult," Paretsky admitted in a 2008 interview, "but it was a difficult part of my life... I felt overwhelmed. My mother got drunk. She didn't cope with the house. I was in charge of cleaning the house, looking after the small children, I did the baking every Saturday for my father and my brothers... I think I was just numb for a couple of decades."

And so, graduating from the University of Kansas (where her father was a microbiology professor) with a degree in political science, she made her escape to Chicago in 1966, doing community service work on the south side.

"Chicago is where I came of age and became a person, made a reputation for myself, and I didn't really want to go back to that."

She returned in 1968 to work there again and has since made the Windy City her home. She eventually completed a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago, and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. She married Courtenay Wright, a professor of physics at the University of Chicago, in 1976, and had three children.

She founded Sisters in Crime in 1986 to help fellow women mystery writers get their fair share of critical respect (and shelf space).

"We were trying to help women get in print, stay in print, and come to the attention of booksellers and libraries. At that time, books by men mystery writers were reviewed seven times as often as books by women, so libraries and booksellers didn't know we existed. Thanks to heroic work by women like Linda Grant, Sharyn McCrumb, and Carolyn Hart, we got a Books in Print project off the ground that made a big difference in readers learning what women were writing. Sisters in Crime has more than four thousand members world-wide."

She has also edited a few anthologies of short stories by contemporary women mystery writers, A Woman's Eye, in 1991, and Women on the Case in 1996. In fact, her work in other areas at times seemed to have taken her away from V.I., who disappeared for almost five years in the late nineties before returning, feistier than ever, in 1999's Hard Time. Since then, she's appeared regularly, each book rushing up the charts.

UNDER OATH

  • "Warshawski presents an irresistible combination: a cranky, vulnerable woman with a messy life, but a superhuman willingness to put herself in harm's way for the sake of justice."

-- Chicago Sun Times

  • " 'A series character,' says Paretsky in an interview, 'is your secret Playmate.' Interviewers have their own way of changing the emphasis of the most self deprecating quote and V. I. is more than a playmate. Once she was given life, she could not and will not be controlled and she will certainly not conform to anyone's games. Some playmate. You must love or hate her, since the only other choice is a kind of cold fascination which really will not do for such a glorious woman. The best route is to learn to love her even when she makes you choke, but don't consider her as a cosy and don't apologize for her behaviour. Not a playmate then, but an alter ego for the bravest as well as the coward; an example of consistent honour: a piece of damaged goods propelled in wrong directions as well as right. Led by the kind of energy which can destroy as well as reform, V. I. is a lost soul of conspicuous intelligence and hectic kindness. One who sheds a skin as easily as a car, she heals her own wounds without crying for help because each time she cried that way before, the silence was not golden. She is lonely often, pathetic, never. The wit is a downtown acid, the eating habits eclectic, the apartment a mess, but the shoes and the courage are divine. Her best possessions are frequently ruined, which she accepts with resignation but not without regret, especially the shoes. To fill the vacuum of her energy and to feed the gnawing conscience, Warshawski will push herself to the limit. She will vex her friends and I wish she was the best of mine, not for the knife edge of anxiety she would cause, but only for the joy of it."

-- Francis Fyfield in The Scorpion Press


NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

COLLECTIONS

Collects two V I shorts published in magazines after Windy City Blues in a special edition only available through Women and Children First, paretsky's favourite Chicago bookstore.

NON-FICTION

  • "The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy in New England Before the Civil War" (dissertation, University of Chicago)
  • Case Studies in Alternative Education (1975)
  • Writing in an Age of Silence (2007) ...Buy this book

Still fighting the good fight, Paretsky instills her powerful memoir with all the passion, anger and righteous indignation you'd expect. Paretsky refuses to separate her art and her politics -- and argues that no artist should -- but when she zeroes in on "the Junior Mr. Bush" and the much-hated Patriot Act, the long smouldering rage ignites. Not for the timid or the intellectually slack-jawed, this is as timely and as truly patriotic a tome as I've come across this year. No doubt the stormtroopers will be banging on her door any day now.

AS EDITOR

  • Eye of a Woman (1990; aka "A Woman's Eye"; 1991)
  • Women on the Case (1996)
  • Sisters on the Case (2007)

FILM

  • V.I. WARSHAWSKI ..Buy this video ..Buy this DVD
    (1991, Hollywood Pictures)
    89 minutes
    Based (allegedly) on characters created by Sara Paretsky
    Written by Nick Thiel
    Directed by Jeff Kanew
    Starring Kathleen Turner as V.I. WARSHAWSKI

RELATED LINKS

The author's official web site. Good for a well-written and intelligent rant or two, plus the usual bios, bibliography, etc.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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