Paretsky, Sara 1947–

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Paretsky, Sara 1947–

(Sara N. Paretsky)


Born June 8, 1947, in Ames, IA; daughter of David Paretsky (a scientist) and Mary Edwards (a librarian); married Courtenay Wright (a professor), June 19, 1976; children: Kimball, Timothy, Philip. Education: University of Kansas, B.A., 1967; University of Chicago, M.B.A., 1977, Ph.D., 1977. Hobbies and other interests: Baseball (Chicago Cubs), singing.


Home—Chicago, IL. Agent—Dominick Abel, 146 W. 82nd Ave., Ste. 1B, New York, NY 10024.


Writer, 1986—. Urban Research Corp., Chicago, IL, publications manager, 1971-74; freelance business writer, 1974-77; Continental National America (CNA; an insurance company), Chicago, manager of advertising and direct mail marketing programs, 1977-86. Northwestern University, Chicago, writer-in-residence, 1998. Featured in the documentary film Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction, directed by Pamela Briggs and William McDonald, 1996; appeared in pro-civil liberties advertisements funded by the American Civil Liberties Union.


Private Eye Writers of America, Authors Guild, Sisters in Crime (founder and president, 1987-88), Crime Writers Association, Chicago Network.


Award from Friends of American Writers, 1985, for Deadlock; named one of Ms. magazine's Women of the Year, 1987; Silver Dagger award from Crime Writers Association, 1988, for Blood Shot; inducted into the University of Kansas Hall of Fame, 1988; Marlowe Award, German Crime Writers Association, 1993, for Guardian Angel; honorary doctor of letters, MacMurray College, 1993; Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Contribution to Midwest Literature, 1996; visiting fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford, 1997; honorary doctor of letters, Columbia College, Chicago, 1999; Cartier Diamond Dagger, British Crime Writers Association, 2002, for lifetime achievement; Gold Dagger, British Crime Writers Association, 2004, for Blacklist; Writers of America lifetime achievement award, 2005.



Indemnity Only (also see below), Dial (New York, NY), 1982.

Deadlock, Dial (New York, NY), 1984, ImPress Mystery (Pleasantville, NY), 2004.

Killing Orders, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.

Bitter Medicine, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

Blood Shot (also see below), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1988, published as Toxic Shock, Gollancz (London, England), 1988.

Burn Marks (also see below), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1990.

Guardian Angel, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1992.

Tunnel Vision, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1994.

Windy City Blues (short stories), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995, published as V.I. for Short, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1995.

Three Complete Novels (contains Indemnity Only, Blood Shot, and Burn Marks), Wings (New York, NY), 1995.

Hard Time, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.

Total Recall, Delacorte (New York, NY), 2001.

V.I. Times Two: Photo Finish and Publicity Stunts, Women and Children First (Chicago, IL), 2002.

Blacklist, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2003.

Fire Sale, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2005.

Novels featuring Warshawski have been published in Germany, Japan, Italy, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Spain, Brazil, France, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Korea, Slovakia, Portugal, Russia, Greece, and Indonesia.


(Editor) Beastly Tales: The Mystery Writers of America Anthology, Wynwood Press (New York, NY), 1989.

(Editor) A Woman's Eye (collection of mystery stories), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1991.

(Editor) Women on the Case: Twenty-six Original Stories by the Best Women Crime Writers of Our Time, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1996.

Ghost Country (novel), Delacorte, 1998.

Writing in an Age of Silence (essays), Verso (London; New York), 2007.

Bleeding Kansas, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2008.

Work is represented in anthologies, including The Eyes Have It, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1985; and The Eyes Have It, Volume 2, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1986. Contributor to periodicals, including American Girl, Black Mask Quarterly, Family Circle, Guardian, and Women: A Journal of Liberation.


Indemnity Only was adapted into the film V.I. Warshawski, starring Kathleen Turner and released in 1991; many works have been recorded and released as audiobooks.


Sara Paretsky is the creator of feminist V.I. Warshawski, a tough, street-smart private investigator—half Polish, half Italian—who inevitably uncovers murder and deceit in white-collar Chicago. Paretsky once told CA that one of her motivations in creating Warshawski was "to try to combat some of the typical sexual stereotypes in literature." According to Paretsky, too many of the women characters in literature, not just in mysteries, are either predatory or helpless. So successful has she been in this goal that her Warshawski novels have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Paretsky had the idea for writing about a woman private eye for "three or four years" and made several false starts before finding the right path, she told CA. "At that time I was a middle manager for a large, multinational company," she recalled. "In 1979, I realized that I was trying to create a character who was aping the Raymond Chandler tradition, only in female form, and what I really wanted was a woman who was doing what I was doing, which was trying to make a success in a field traditionally dominated by men. With that realization, I was able to find V.I.'s voice."

Warshawski was introduced in Indemnity Only, where she is hired to track a missing woman from the University of Chicago. Her investigation leads first to the corpse of her client's murdered son. In investigating the killing and continuing her search for the woman, Warshawski unravels a scheme involving a union leader, a gangster, and quirky insurance agents, and she makes a surprising discovery about the identity of her client.

Critics accorded Indemnity Only respectable notices when it appeared in 1982. New Republic reviewer Robin W. Winks described the novel as "thoroughly convincing" and "gritty," and Tribune Books contributor William Brashler declared that "with the feisty Ms. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky … has the makings of an engaging sleuth." Jean M. White, writing in the Washington Post Book World, noted that Paretsky "writes smoothly within the bounds of convention" and added that she "writes with assurance about a milieu that she knows well."

In Deadlock, Warshawski decides to investigate the supposedly accidental death of her cousin, former hockey player Boom Boom Warshawski, who fell into a ship's propeller while working on the Chicago docks. Deadlock earned Paretsky praise from numerous reviewers. "Good story, well told," summarized T.J. Binsin in the Times Literary Supplement. Harriet Waugh, in her assessment for Spectator, agreed, deeming Deadlock "strongly plotted" and recommending Warshawski as "convincingly tough."

The third Warshawski novel, Killing Orders finds the detective once again plunged into a world of danger and deceit. Here she is hired by one of her aunts—a church bookkeeper with whom she has had no communication in a decade—to solve the disappearance of five million dollars in stock certificates from a Chicago monastery.

Killing Orders, drew further critical acclaim. A New Yorker contributor evaluated the work as a "pretty good story" and commended the fullness of the Warshawski characterization, noting that "there are few private eyes anywhere about whom we are told so much." Likewise, New Statesman contributor Joan Smith wrote that Killing Orders "restores politics to its rightful place in the mainstream private eye novel, and in doing so revitalizes the tradition." Newgate Callendar was still another enthusiast, writing in his New York Times Book Review column that the novel's ending is "exciting and even a bit scary." He also commended Paretsky for her courage in writing about church corruption, observing that she "seems willing to take on any institution, no matter how sacred."

Paretsky followed Killing Orders with Bitter Medicine, which has Warshawski uncovering corruption in the medical profession. The case begins when Warshawski agrees to drive a friend's son-in-law to a job interview. Accompanying them is the son-in-law's pregnant wife, who goes into labor while waiting in the car. Warshawski drives the expectant mother to a nearby private hospital. Soon afterwards she learns that both mother and child have died. Aghast, Warshawski decides to investigate.

As with previous Warshawski mysteries, Bitter Medicine was held in good standing by critics. Margaret Cannon, a reviewer for the Toronto Globe and Mail, deemed Bitter Medicine "a finely crafted and immensely readable book." Callendar, in his New York Times Book Review appraisal, commended Paretsky for her skills of narration and characterization. "The action moves logically along," he wrote, "and the characters are well drawn." James Kaufman, writing in Tribune Books, expressed particular satisfaction with Paretsky's feats of characterization, and he declared that "with [Bitter Medicine,] as with all good private-eye novels, what engages us is not so much the crime as … the detective." He ranked Warshawski with "today's best private eyes."

Blood Shot, the fifth Warshawski mystery, begins with the detective returning to her childhood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, where she agrees to search for an old friend's hitherto unknown father. With the case hardly under way, the friend asks Warshawski to abandon it, fearful that a recent co-worker's murder is somehow related to the search. To the friend's chagrin, however, Warshawski continues the investigation. In his assessment of Blood Shot for the Chicago Tribune, Paul Johnson described Warshawski as "one of the finest, if not the finest, of the female first-person shamuses who have appeared in print over the last decade." He noted Paretsky's "unpretentious prose style" and concluded that "what keeps us with Warshawski all the way is a dogged decency and an essential sweetness of character behind her shrewdness." Particularly enthusiastic about Blood Shot was Marilyn Stasio, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the novel constituted Paretsky's "best and boldest work to date in creating a criminal investigation that is a genuine heroic quest."

Burn Marks finds Warshawski investigating arson and political intrigue while also being drawn into the life of her Aunt Elena, a troublesome, hard-drinking woman. To Armchair Detective contributor Guy Szuberla, War- shawski's sense of responsibility to family members shows how she differs from detective fiction's most famous male private eyes. She is independent, he noted, but is still connected to a variety of people; she does not live the isolated existence of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The aid Warshawski offers Aunt Elena also indicates the detective's compassion for the downtrodden, Szuberla remarked. With this and the other Warshawski mysteries, he commented, Paretsky has managed to "open the narrative boundaries of the hard-boiled detective novel and transform its emotional center."

In Guardian Angel, Warshawski's sympathy for the underdog once again figures in the story. She is infuriated when an affluent couple from her neighborhood scheme to become guardians of another neighbor, an elderly, infirm woman whose dogs have created a nuisance. The two soon order the dogs euthanized, and Warshawski suspects they have designs on the woman's money as well.

"What moves [Warshawski] to action and involvement is not so much a need to prove herself as an extreme sensitivity to injustice, which she is always inclined to test for hidden neurotic motives," remarked New York Times contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his review of Guardian Angel. He pronounced the book "the richest and most engaging yet of Ms. Paretsky's thrillers." Assessing Guardian Angel for Tribune Books, Dick Adler praised Paretsky for "her ability to zero in on the shadowy impulses that motivate some, but not all, human behavior." In People, Susan Toepfer declared Guardian Angel's central mystery "difficult to follow, and intrinsically dull," but found Warshawski's appeal sufficient to recommend the book.

In Tunnel Vision, published in 1994, a system of tunnels beneath downtown Chicago has become flooded (such a disaster really happened in 1992). The flood threatens a homeless family living in the basement of Warshawski's office building, and she tries to assist them.

Several reviewers noted that Tunnel Vision reflects Paretsky's—and her heroine's—penchant for dealing with social issues. New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, however, found this manifested in stereotypes: "The poor, the weak, the young, the old, the female, the single and the black tend to be good, and the rich, the strong, the middle-aged, the married and the WASPish are likely to be evil." He deemed other elements of the book praiseworthy, though, especially Warshawski, who "remains an appealing character," complex and vulnerable. Wrote Newsweek contributor Laura Shapiro: "In this, V.I.'s eighth adventure and a fine one, she wrestles with her motives—and then barges on, seeking justice the only way she knows."

Several short stories about Warshawski were collected under the title Windy City Blues, published in 1995. Some reviewers thought the stories less effective than Paretsky's longer works. They "deliver little of the grit and passion on display in the Warshawski novels," asserted New York Times Book Review contributor Josh Rubins. For one thing, Rubins contended, "few of the stories … even try to sketch in the menacing, earthy textures of V.I.'s Chicago, or to suggest her flinty commitment to the city's underdogs." A Publishers Weekly contributor also found the stories wanting; they "seem slight beside the broader canvases of Warshawski novels like Blood Shot and Guardian Angel," the reviewer wrote. In a Times Literary Supplement piece, however, Natasha Cooper pronounced the collection's components "necessarily slight, but attractive."

With Ghost Country, her first non-Warshawski novel, Paretsky moved away from the formulaic elements of the mystery genre because, as she explained in a letter to her readers on her home page, she believed that her message about the urgent need to remake society required a radically different approach. Watching Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, Paretsky wrote: "I felt despair, as I thought of generations of parents training their daughters to abandon a sense of self." Noting the thirst for signs and miracles, and "the numbers of those who need true miracles to save them—the homeless, the desperately poor or afflicted," Paretsky envisioned Ghost Country as a story of "the sacred and the dispossessed, meeting on the streets," forever changed through the mystical relationship with a homeless woman named Starr.

A Booklist contributor found Ghost Country "rich, astonishing, and affecting," but David Galef in the New York Times Book Review considered it weak and oversimplified. "The reader feels the twitch of puppet strings," he complained, arguing that the characters have little depth and the book's mystical plot devices strain credulity. "Paretsky's sympathies are in the right place," Galef wrote, "but she wants [a good outcome] so badly she flattens everything in its path."

Warshawski's return in Hard Time received a warm welcome from critics. In this installment, Warshawski butts heads with a powerful media executive and lands in prison. "V.I.'s two-month stay in jail," wrote Women's Review of Books contributor Margaret Kinsman, "is a particularly nerve-wracking section of the novel" during which the detective "uncovers some ugly truths about the conditions of life for imprisoned women." Indeed, Paretsky considered these chapters the most difficult she had ever written. V.I. ultimately prevails, however, and in the process reveals new dimensions of character. "She is emerging, as probably we all like to think we are, a stronger, more complex and reflective woman as she moves into her midlife decades," observed Kinsman. "Hard Time sees V.I. getting better at handling her own self—becoming as competent a person as she is the Great Girl Detective."

In Blacklist, Warshawski is hired by recurring client Darraugh Graham to investigate strange lights in a vacant mansion that were spotted by Graham's mother. While investigating, Warshawski finds a teenage girl trying to break into the home and then stumbles upon a corpse floating in the mansion's fish pond. It turns out to be the body of Marcus Whitby, a journalist who was investigating a 1930s government theater project for African Americans. Specifically, he was researching a young dancer who became the focus of a 1950s communist witch hunt. Reviewers Bookwatch contributor S.A. Gorden called the book "a gritty detective suspense novel." Stephanie Zvirin of Booklist dubbed it "a stellar entry in a celebrated series" and an "enticing mix of history and mystery [that] showcases sharp, clever, vulnerable V.I. at her best." Warshawski illuminates one political conspiracy after another, from the 1950s blacklists to the Patriot Act. According to Ron Givens of People, the conflicts and moral dilemmas that Warshawski contemplates "resemble high school debates," but they do "add to the deeper currents of the story." Leslie Madden of Library Journal wrote, "This may be Paretsky's most complex novel to date." Not all critics considered Paretsky's exploration of politics to be an intelligent investigation. A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that "Paretsky exploits post 9/11 paranoia to take up for the little guy once more."

Fire Sale reunites Warshawski with her South Chicago roots, filling in the lead character's back story. The detective returns to her alma mater, Bertha Palmer High School, and agrees to coach the girls' basketball team as the current coach, a friend of Warshawski, battles cancer. The basketball team and high school have fallen prey to gang violence and poverty, a reflection of the deterioration of Warshawski's old neighborhood. Warshawski tries to secure funding for the basketball team from a millionaire chain-store owner who grew up in the area and now employs and underpays many of its residents. A feud ensues between the store owner and the residents, with Warshawski caught in the middle. Booklist contributor Bill Ott commented that "nothing seems forced" in the novel and that the author "has never been better … at evoking a sense of place." Much of the book describes the urban decay of South Chicago and mirrors the decay of hope for these characters. A Publishers Weekly contributor acknowledged that the book is "packed with social themes and moral energy, held together by humor, compassion, and sheer feistiness."

Paretsky once again leaves Warshawski behind for her next two books. Writing in an Age of Silence is a collection of five personal essays that focus on the author's longtime commitment to political dissent and how this commitment has influenced her work, including her novels featuring V.I. Warshawski. Based on lectures by the author, the essays include a comparison of female sleuths to such iconic male detectives as Sam Spade and Philip Marlow and a recounting of Martin Luther King's summer march in Chicago in 1966 and her ongoing commitment to feminism and activism over the following decades.

In an interview with Margaret Heilbrun for the Library Journal, the author comments on the book's title, noting: "It's odd to call these modern times an age of silence, when the clamor is deafening; cellphones, YouTube, Fox, American Idol. But it's an age of silence for the honest, real speech that we need, and it's getting harder and harder to find a way to hear such speech. The title also resonates with my own long journey from silence to speech." Elizabeth Kennedy, writing in the Library Journal, noted that Writing in an Age of Silence "develops as a conscientious objection to the new American McCarthyism."

The title of Paretsky's 2008 novel, Bleeding Kansas, refers to a term used prior to the Civil War denoting the fight between those who were for slavery and those who were against it. The novel features the Grellier and Schapen clans, farming families whose roots in Kansas's Kaw Valley date back to the 1850s. Over the years, the two families have come to dislike each other, with the Schapens believing in conservative values as- sociated with the heartland and the Grelliers favoring left-leaning liberal ideas. Juanita Sherwood, writing for the Journal-Gazette Times Courier of Mattoon, Illinois, noted: "Conflict of various kinds is what makes a good story, and this book is loaded with it: generational conflict between teens and adults, neighborly conflicts and jealousies, religious fervor gone astray, marital issues, guilt over one's actions, financial woes, uncertainties of the farming industry."

In addition to the Grelliers and Schapens, there are the Fremantles, also one of the founding families of the area. When Gina Haring comes to move into John Fremantle's old mansion in town, she is invited by Susan Grellier to participate in Wicca dances. Meanwhile, a red calf bred by Robbie Schapen has been chosen to be a sacrifice for a Jewish ritual to establish the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Further complicating matters is Robbie's love for Lara Grellier. "For Paretsky, an accomplished and talented writer with a large following, Bleeding Kansas represents a noteworthy change of style," noted Stuart Shiffman in a review for the Web site. Referring to the story as "memorable and tragic," Booklist contributor Joyce Saricks noted that the novel is "for fans of character-centered, issue-driven, evocative novels of the plains."

Paretsky and some other women mystery writers, such as Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell, have created strong women protagonists in a genre once dominated by male authors and characters. However, there are by no means too many women writing—or being portrayed in—detective fiction, according to Paretsky. "It's hard for me to think the field is crowded when we're still a very small minority in the genre as a whole," she told CA. Paretsky has sought to nurture women mystery writers and to scrutinize the portrayals of women characters in the genre by founding the group Sisters in Crime. She also has edited several anthologies of detection fiction by women. Her work certainly has struck a chord with many readers, especially women, and Paretsky has found the character of Warshawski to be an effective means of expressing her beliefs.



St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Armchair Detective, spring, 1994, Guy Szuberla, review of Burn Marks, pp. 147-153.

Booklist, July, 1999, review of Ghost Country, p. 1894; September 1, 2003, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Blacklist, p. 1927; June 1, 2005, Bill Ott, review of Fire Sale, p. 1712; October 15, 2007, Joyce Saricks, review of Bleeding Kansas, p. 4.

Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1988, Paul Johnson, review of Blood Shot.

Crime, October 19, 2003, Marilyn Stasio, review of Blacklist, p. 25.

Entertainment Weekly, December 21, 2007, Jennifer Reese, review of Bleeding Kansas, p. 83.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 20, 1987, Margaret Cannon, review of Bitter Medicine.

Guardian (London, England), March 22, 2008, Suzanne Goldenberg, "Interview."

Harper's, May, 2007, John Leonard, review of Writing in an Age of Silence, p. 87.

Journal-Gazette Times Courier (Mattoon, IL), February 5, 2008, Juanita Sherwood, review of Bleeding Kansas.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of Blacklist, p. 941; May 15, 2005, review of Fire Sale, p. 566; November 15, 2007, review of Bleeding Kansas.

Library Journal, September 1, 2003, Leslie Madden, review of Blacklist, p. 210; June 15, 2005, Leslie Madden, review of Fire Sale, p. 64; April 1, 2007, Elizabeth Kennedy, review of Writing in an Age of Silence, p. 90; April 15, 2007, Margaret Heilbrun, "Q&A: Sara Paretsky," p. 88; November 1, 2007, Susan Clifford, review of Bleeding Kansas, p. 60.

New Republic, March 3, 1982, Robin W. Winks, review of Indemnity Only.

New Statesman, April 25, 1986, Joan Smith, review of Killing Orders, p. 27.

Newsweek, July 4, 1994, Laura Shapiro, review of Tunnel Vision, p. 67.

New Yorker, September 2, 1985, review of Killing Orders, p. 87.

New York Times, January 27, 1992, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Guardian Angel, p. C22; June 20, 1994, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Tunnel Vision, p. C18.

New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1985, Newgate Callendar, review of Killing Orders, p. 33; August 2, 1987, Newgate Callendar, review of Bitter Medicine, p. 29; October 9, 1988, Marilyn Stasio, review of Blood Shot, p. 22; May 31, 1992, Vincent Patrick, review of Guardian Angel, p. 45; October 8, 1995, Josh Rubins, review of Windy City Blues, p. 24; June 14, 1998, David Galef, review of Ghost Country; January 13, 2008, "Loathe Thy Neighbor," review of Bleeding Kansas, p. 24.

People, March 16, 1992, Susan Toepfer, review of Guardian Angel, pp. 23-24; December 15, 2003, Ron Givens, review of Blacklist, p. 52.

Progressive, March, 2008, Matthew Rothschild, "Sara Paretsky," interview with author, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1995, review of Windy City Blues, p. 106; September 15, 2003, review of Blacklist, p. 48-49; May 16, 2005, Fire Sale, p. 36.

Record, January 15, 2008, M.L. Johnson, review of Bleeding Kansas, p. 10.

Reviewer's Bookwatch, February, 2005, S.A. Gorden, review of Blacklist.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, January 2, 2008, Oline H. Cogdill, review of Bleeding Kansas.

Spectator, January 5, 1985, Harriet Waugh, review of Deadlock, p. 21.

Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 1984, T.J. Binsin, review of Deadlock; October 20, 1995, Natasha Cooper, review of V.I. for Short, p. 24.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 31, 1982, William Brashler, review of Indemnity Only; June 7, 1987, James Kaufman, review of Bitter Medicine, p. 6; February 2, 1992, Dick Adler, review of Guardian Angel, p. 3.

Washington Post Book World, February 21, 1982, Jean M. White, review of Indemnity Only.

Women's Review of Books, December, 1999, Margaret Kinsman, review of Hard Time, pp. 23-24.

ONLINE, (July 31, 2008), Stuart Shiffman, review of Bleeding Kansas.

Hindu, (February 3, 2008), Ammu Joseph, "Twists in the Tale," interview with author.

January, (July 31, 2008), Linda Richards, interview with author.

Sara Paretsky Home Page, (August 12, 2005).

Windy City Media Group Web site, (July 31, 2008), Yasmin Nair, review of Bleeding Kansas.