VI Warshawski goes to Kansas

Sara Paretsky's PI heroine is still a refreshing read, 18 books on, says Alan Montague


Imagine the scene: it is 1982 and a young author is attending a meeting at a Los Angeles publishing house — let’s call it Marlowe and Greenstreet.

The author is ushered into the director’s office.

“Good morning, Mr Marlowe”, she says, in a low, confident voice. “Thank you for seeing me. I have a book I’d like to discuss.”

Mr Marlowe removes the cigarette from his mouth. “I’m all ears, sweetheart,” he growls.

“I’ve written a crime thriller where the main character is a private investigator out of Chicago. Tough, but vulnerable. The twist is, she’s a woman.”

The publisher gazes at her for a second or two, his mouth twitching.

“A woman PI? Y’know what would happen if we published a book about a woman PI. No one would buy it, no one would read it and my sales figures would fall through the floor. Pretty as you are, sweetheart, I won’t take the fall for you.”

The author rises from her chair.

“I can see I’m wasting your time, Mr Marlowe. I’ll take my book elsewhere. Pity — this could have been the start of a beautiful friendship.”

With that, she leaves, and never looks back.

Any publisher who turned down Sara Paretsky would certainly regret missing out on a beautiful friendship.

Over 35 years, her heroine, V I Warshawski, has featured in 18 novels and has become one of the most popular and enduring characters in crime fiction.

Fallout (Hodder & Stoughton, £17.99) is the latest outing and sees V I out of her Chicago comfort zone in rural Kansas, on the trail of a former Hollywood actress and an aspiring film-maker who have disappeared in the small town of Lawrence.

What starts out as a missing persons case soon develops into something much darker involving Cold-War intrigue, a mad Jewish scientist, chemical weapons and murder. Metaphorically speaking, we’re not in Kansas any more.

Paretsky describes the book as her own origin story. Lawrence is where the author grew up and the plot was suggested by “an event in my father’s scientific life”, she says.

Decades on, there remains something refreshing about Warshawski. Not many crime-fighters are dumped by their boyfriend just as they crack the case. V I consoles herself by slipping into a favourite pair of fancy Italian shoes.

Philip Marlowe never wore Magli pumps, did he?


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