Sunday, November 23, 2014

Break Down

Sara Paretsky has written two non-genre novels, and they break her VI Warshawski mysteries into three eras. There are the classic Warshawski novels, written and set in the 1980s and early 1990s.  That Warshawski is a pioneer, both in character and in her position as one of the Founding Mothers (along with Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone) of the hard-boiled female PI novel.  I remember them as classics and assume they'll stand up on re-reading, but their setting (before cell phones, electronic searches, and 24-hour news) may as well be a foreign country.  Between Ghost Country and  Bleeding Kansas come Warshawski's middle period, four novels I enjoyed but which didn't seem to make much of an impression.  Paretsky seemed to struggle with adjusting her heroine's age and with the 24-hour media world established by the turn of the 21st Century.

Hardball kicked off VI Warshawski's renaissance, a tightly written, fast-paced mystery I literally could not put down, and one in which Paretsky gracefully shaved a few years off VI's age and placed her comfortably in the digital world.  Her next two novels haven't been quite as good as Hardball, but I've enjoyed them.

Break Down starts out in a graveyard on a rainy summer night, where VI, at the panicked request of her cousin Petra, searches for a group of tweens holding an initiation ceremony based on a Twilight-like series.  She finds them near the fresh corpse of a somewhat disreputable private investigator.  VI gets the girls out of the graveyard, deals with the police, and thinks that's the end of her involvement.  It's not, of course - VI finds herself being pulled towards the case by the powerful and connected mothers of two of the tweens she retrieved from the graveyard, by a former classmate in the midst of a manic episode, and by her friend Murray's fight for his journalistic career in a media conglomerate more interested in promoting a Glenn Beck clone.  Paretsky deftly ties the threads together, although she paints the Beck character a bit too broadly.  Still, she shows why she deserves her position in the mystery writing pantheon.

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