There's a mystery at the heart of the author's new book, "Ghost Country," but it isn't the hard-boiled kind that her readers are used to.
When Sara Paretsky wrote the first of her hugely popular V.I. Warshawski mysteries in 1982, the Lawrence native was perceived as something of a literary daredevil.
The hard-boiled detective novel was then exclusively and definitively a man's world, a genre defined by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and ruled by tough-talking, hard-fighting gumshoes like Sam Spade.
Paretsky's introduction of Warshawski, a woman P.I. equipped with not only the sharp wit but the quick fists of the genre's male detectives, changed all that. "Indemnity Only" was greeted by critical acclaim and brisk sales. Seven bestseller V. I. novels and a book of stories followed.
Now Paretsky is taking a new risk with her latest book, "Ghost Country."
There's no Warshawski. And though there's a mystery at the heart of the novel, it's not of the hard-boiled variety.
"Writing this book was kind of like jumping off the high dive," Paretsky said during a coast-to-coast book tour that will bring her Wednesday to Lawrence.
"V.I. and I have been together so long that she's like an old friend,'' Paretsky said. ``But 'Ghost Country' was quite a stretch for me. It was exciting to work on, because it gave me a chance to tell a story from a lot of different points of view. It was a challenge to create that many distinctive voices."
Four characters converge on the streets of Chicago after Madeleine, a homeless woman, sees what she believes to be an image of the Virgin Mary seeping blood on the wall of a luxury hotel.
Soon drawn into the story are Mara, a rebellious adolescent; Luis, an alcoholic diva fallen on hard times; and Hector, an idealistic psychiatrist who treats mentally ill homeless patients in defiance of hospital policy. The plot mixes new-millennium mysticism and Dickensian street theater as it follows the women's fight to worship at the Virgin's image, and the powerful interests that oppose them.
For V.I. fans, Paretsky's concern with social issues like free speech, public health policy and homelessness is nothing new. The big difference this time, Paretsky said, is her decision to stretch her wings as a writer.
"With crime fiction, particularly with the hard-boiled novel, the language has to be very tight and spare. You can't indulge in a lot of poetic writing, because that's just contrary to the spirit of the genre," said Paretsky, who's already at work on the next Warshawski mystery.
"I'm someone who's really in love with language, with the word on the page. With 'Ghost Country' I had a chance to use much lusher language and imagery than I use in writing a hard-boiled novel. It was wonderful to be able to do that."