Chicago Sara Paretsky’s latest installment in her series about feisty, female private detective V.I. Warshawski opens with the heroine outside a Chicago nightclub, the bloody body of a woman who was just shot to death in her arms.
An Iraqi war veteran is charged with the crime and his parents hire Warshawski, setting off a chain of crime and corruption that links Warshawski’s investigation from Chicago to Baghdad. From there, the mystery unfolds.
“The person who is arrested in the opening chapter is never guilty of the crime,” Paretsky says during an interview in the upstairs study at her home on Chicago’s South Side, her golden retriever Callie curled up on the floor nearby.
“Why do the police continue to doubt V.I.’s judgment on these matters, I don’t know,” she says.
“Body Work” came out Tuesday. It is the 14th novel in the Warshawski series. The plot focuses on a performance artist who sits nude on a nightclub stage and allows people to paint on her.
As hinted in the title, Paretsky says a major theme is the way both men and women’s bodies are objectified, whether for sex or war.
“When do we get away from that?” she asks.
Also highlighted is Paretsky’s focus on the Iraq war. Her book was released the same day President Barack Obama announced the official withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq. It’s a conflict she says she was against before it started.
“I feel really strongly about the people whose bodies are on the line. And I think we’ve thrown them into this rock crusher and then we’re ignoring them,” she says.
That social activist stance is nothing new for Paretsky, who left her native Kansas at age 19 in 1966 to do community service on Chicago’s South Side. She has worked with groups that focus on issues such as reproductive rights and the mentally ill homeless.
Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries and Sleuths bookstore in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, says moral values come through in Paretsky’s writing.
“She doesn’t hide her opinions about social events that are happening at this time,” Aleksy says. “She’s not shy about bringing some of her sense of where the world is going or where she thinks it should be going and using it in her fiction.”
At the center of this world is Warshawski, who Paretsky says started as a pioneer and “brash, young thing,” when she debuted in 1982 in “Indemnity Only.”
“She also was really in your face about, ‘Yes I have the right to do this job and I can do it as well as any guy,”’ Paretsky says. “It would be ludicrous for her to be saying that now.”
Other things have changed for the private detective, including her personality, which Paretsky says “used to be much more distinctive than mine but with time the two get merged. I feel that if I were a more sophisticated writer I would be able to solve that problem.”
And V.I. (Victoria Iphigenia) has stopped aging.
“For a long time, I had her aging in real time, but I’ve lost my courage to make her old — so she’s kind of hovering around 50,” the silver-haired 63-year-old says. “When we started out, she was a year younger (than Paretsky). Now she’s 10 years younger.
“Time has been kinder to her than to me,” says Paretsky, surrounded by mementos in her study, a photo of her husband in his military uniform, a Rosie the Riveter picture that says “We Can Do It,” and a pillow embroidered with a crossword puzzle.
Another pseudo-character in Paretsky’s series is the city of Chicago. Paretsky says she will often spot locations for scenes in her books while walking around the city. Or she’ll dream up a sequence in a real Chicago place and go there to research before writing.
Like Warshawski, the city also has changed since 1982.
“If you go downtown everything is getting homogenized. ... It’s boring. We’ve lost a lot of our uniqueness,” Paretsky says. “But in the neighborhoods, they’re still very unique and local. It’s not the cookie-cutter stuff. In that way, I think this city remains its own rich place to be in.”
And Warshawski will continue to be in those Chicago neighborhoods, Paretsky says, because there are more books on the way. In the next installment, Paretsky hints that there’s a vampire-obsessed group of girls.
“It may be that someone will end up dead with a spike through his heart in the backyard of a high-profile woman,” Paretsky says. “I would love for that to happen, but I’m not sure if I can fit it in.”
She has, though, pretty much fit in everything else: V.I. has tangled with corrupt Chicago politics, the Vatican Bank, Great Lakes shipping and malpractice, and more.
Despite literary success — her novels are published in 30 countries — Paretsky remains humble.
“I think my work was a game changer for women in the mystery field,” she says. “It wasn’t what I set out to do, but I think it had that effect. ... Whether it’s a lasting effect and whether I’m a good enough writer to survive in the long haul, I hope so, but how can I know?”