Paretsky, Sara

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Born 8 June 1947, Ames, Iowa

Daughter of David and Mary Edwards Paretsky; married Courtenay Wright, 1976; children: Kimball, Timothy, Phillip

Since Sara Paretsky's sharp-tongued feminist detective first inspected the scene of a crime, her lively and frequently dangerous sleuthings have had a strong impact on the genre of the mystery novel. Paretsky, determined to overcome the tired stereo-types of women in literature, created a semitough, smart, sexy female (partial to silk shirts and early morning jogs) to tackle the dirty business of crime. Indemnity Only (1982) was the debut of Paretsky's half Italian/half Polish version of the classic hardboiled private eye, V.I. (for Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawski. Vic is streetwise but compassionate, determined to see the innocent relieved of their sufferings and equally determined the guilty should be punished. On her first case, she tracks a missing woman but uncovers more than a simple disappearance: there has been at least one murder, conspiracy, gang involvement. This feisty lady with a passion for justice—and for her ubiquitous red Ferragamo pumps—is unique among investigators in popular detective fiction. But in the early days, Vic was too good to be real and Paretsky had to endow her with a couple of flaws, "a short fuse and sloth," about which the author is herself an expert. These particular features of Vic's personality have endeared her to Paretsky's many fans in Japan, one of whom wrote, "I like Vic because it is all right for her to be angry, and it's all right for her to be messy."

Equally important to the character of Vic Warshawski and to Paretsky's themes is the setting of these crime novels in contemporary Chicago. The first V.I. mystery includes scenes at the University of Chicago (where Paretsky was herself a student) and schemes in the insurance industry (where Paretsky was employed as an underwriter for several years). The thugs are real enough (brutal and vain), but most of the "crime" is of the white-collar kind. On the western shores of Lake Michigan, it seems corrupt institutions, seedy politicians, and shady practices were practically invented. And V.I. has plenty of trouble to battle against—the happy result of Sara Paretsky's determination to be a writer.

Paretsky grew up the only girl in a family of five children in a small Midwestern college town. Her academic parents agreed to pay for their boys to go to college, but Sara had to make it on her own. She worked her way through a B.A. at Kansas University (1967), and later an M.B.A. and Ph.D. in history (1977) at the University of Chicago. Until recently, she was fond of saying that they gave her the doctorate degree only after she "promised never to teach." This remark is typical of Paretsky, who has no illusions about her writing either—though her novels about Vic Warshawski are dependable bestsellers both in America and abroad. She is self-effacing partly because of her years of commitment to social causes. In the summer of 1966, she did community service on the South Side of Chicago. Paretsky explains: "That summer informed my view of the difficulty that ordinary people have when faced with large and pitiless institutions. For that reason, Chicago dominates the way in which I think about life, power, justice."

An important contribution Paretsky has made is to raise the public awareness of social issues through her crime novels. She says that because "the crime novel is the place where law, justice and society naturally intersect," a comprehensive and faithful vision of human and social interactions is possible. Her novels are praised as well plotted and convincing. But in Killing Orders (1985), when Paretsky takes on church corruption, her readers and reviewers compliment her courage as well as her skill. Newgate Callendar, a Paretsky fan and columnist for the New York Times, observed that she "seems willing to take on any institution, no matter how sacred." And if Paretsky is fearless, her sleuth V.I. is even more so. With Blood Shot (1988), where Vic returns to the neighborhood of her childhood to help a friend despite death threats, the Chicago Tribune 's Paul Johnson recognized "the finest of the female first-person shamuses who have appeared in print over the last decade." This novel won the Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger in 1988.

Because she considers herself fundamentally a storyteller and not an activist, Paretsky has broken out of the traditional mystery genre to tell in Ghost Country (1998) about the plight of homeless people living under Wacker Drive in Chicago's downtown Loop area. Her protagonist is an alcoholic opera singer down on her luck, but still regal and protective of her audience. Paretsky manages in this particular novel to expose not only the corrupt political attitudes and greed that have led to the misery of the poor in large cities, but to account for the increasing numbers we see on the streets every day by exposing the callous and abysmal treatment of the mentally ill. The element of mystery is ever present, since the book is marketed with these tag lines: "The world is waiting for a miracle. What if she's already here?"

Paretsky continues to live in Chicago with her husband, to take singing lessons, to be an avid fan of baseball, and to work with Sisters in Crime, an organization of women mystery writers she founded and served as president after a little breakfast she organized in Baltimore in 1986 grew into a promotional phenomenon.

Other Works:

Deadlock (1984). Bitter Medicine (1987). Burn Marks (1990). Guardian Angel (1991). Tunnel Vision (1994). Windy City Blues (1995).


Reference works:

CA (1984, 1990). CANR (1998). Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

Chicago (Mar. 1986). LAT (22 Dec. 1991). Mystery Scene (1995). TLS (30 Nov. 1984, 20 June 1986).