Dead Land, by Sara Paretsky*****

Detective Vic Warshawski was born in 1982, a time when a woman advocating for herself, or another woman, or women on the whole were few and far between. Such a woman often spoke softly, hesitantly, and to reassure the listener that she wasn’t stark raving mad, she might begin by saying, “I’m not a feminist or anything, but…” And so for the lonely few of us that were uncloseted, audacious feminists, this bold, brazen, unapologetic character was inspirational. Vic is fictional, but Paretsky is not. It was leading lights such as hers that made me feel less alone. I have loved her from then, to now.

Paretsky is no longer a young woman. I know this because I am a grandmother myself, and she is older than I am. For her readers that wonder if she’s still got it, I have great news. She’s better than ever.

By now I should have thanked William Morrow, Net Galley, and Edelweiss Books for the review copies. You can get this book April 21, 2020.

Victoria’s young goddaughter, Bernie Fouchard appears in an earlier story, and now she returns. Bernie’s youthful passion and impetuous disposition counter Vic’s experience and more measured responses. I liked Bernie when she was introduced, and am glad she is back. Chicago’s shady politicians are about to quietly sell a prime chunk of the city’s park lands to developers; the corrupt nature of the deal makes it essential that the whole thing be done fast and with as little publicity or public input as possible. Bernie and a handful of others learn of it, and they protest at a meeting at which the city fathers had hoped to slide this oily project through. There are arrests, and soon afterward, Bernie’s boyfriend is murdered.  

At the same time, Bernie tries to help a homeless singer named Lydia Zamir. Zamir is brilliant and was once very famous, but everything crumbled around the time that her lover was shot and killed; she’s been living under a bridge, filthy, disoriented, playing her music on a child’s toy piano. Now Lydia is missing. Lydia’s champion has been a man named Coop, and Coop is missing too. Before pulling a bunker, Coop deposits his dog outside Vic’s apartment, earning her the enmity of neighbors that are already up in arms over the barking of Vic’s own dogs when she is gone. Now Vic has every reason to help find Coop, Lydia, and the murderer. At the same time the reader must wonder how the sleazy deal, the murder, and the disappearances are connected. The pacing is urgent and my interest never flags; the haunting mental image of Lydia and her small, battered piano tug at my social conscience, all the more so as the world is hurtled into quarantine.

Long-running characters Lottie and Max, who are like parents to Vic, and newspaperman Murray, a close friend of Vic’s, return here, and I love them all. No doubt this colors my response as well. I have known these characters longer than my husband of thirty years; at one point I realized that somewhere along the line, I had separated the other books I was reading (some of them quite good) from this one. I had my books-to-read category, but I had mentally shifted this story into the same category as my family business. I should check on my sister, who’s been ill; I wanted to set a lunch date with one of my kids; and I should check and see whether Vic is having any luck finding…oh hey. Wait a minute.

Can you read this story as a stand-alone? You sure can. However, this bad-ass, hardboiled Chicago detective is an addictive character; once you’ve read it, you’re going to want to go back and get the other 21 in the series. I swear it. You probably won’t experience the nostalgia that I do, but a damn good read is a damn good read, any way you slice it.

Highly recommended.

Brush Back, by Sara Paretsky *****

brushbackA good mystery writer engages the writer at the beginning, and gets the adrenaline pumping by the 75% point in the story arc. A great mystery writer grabs us by the shirt right from the get-go, ramps us up into overdrive during the first quarter of the story, and doesn’t let us go till we turn the last page, exhausted, feeling both satisfied and bereaved because the story is over. And Sara Paretsky is a great writer, every single time. She’s only gotten better with this 17th installment of the Vic Warshawski series. Thank you and thank you again (and again, and again) to Putnam-Penguin Publishers and Net Galley for the DRC. You can buy this book July 28 if you want to. And you know you do!

Vic is a working class hero, but she’s left the mean streets of the south part of Chicago behind, and when she goes back to visit, nobody who knew her when she was younger will let her forget it. But she does go back, because an old flame approaches her with a serious problem. His mother Stella is out of prison, finally. She pulled the full twenty years for murdering her daughter Annie. But now there is a possibility she really didn’t do it, and Frank wants Vic to search for the truth. Vic doesn’t like it one bit, but agrees to give him a single hour off the clock; after that, it’s the standard fee. She has bills to pay just like he does.

Things turn ugly very quickly, of course. Of course they do! But just as she is ready to wash her hands of the whole unpleasant business, the evening news picks the story up, along with insinuations that smear her own family’s legacy. Now it’s a matter of family honor; Vic is in it for keeps. Her attorney tells her to keep out of it; Lotty, who is like a second mother to Vic, tells her the same thing. Steer clear; let it go. But our detective is like a dog with a bone, and together with her family pride and reckless nature, she’s in it up to her neck again in no time.

In this installment of the Warshawski series, Paretsky has eighty-sixed young relative Petra, who visited a recent installment, and I was glad to see her go. I found her abrasive. However, young cousin Bernie, a high school student checking out colleges, is visiting, and every inch of my being understood Warshawski’s annoyance at the lack of privacy a teen in one’s home creates, and the irritation of having a young person who’s awake half the night and sleeping in the living room all damn day. I have five grown children and endless others have accepted my hospitality over various summers, and so this tidbit hit home. But Bernie is a much more agreeable sidekick than Petra was, and I hope Paretsky will find cause to bring her back in some future installment.

Another of my favorite moments was the lecture Warshawski’s mechanic treated her to when her car was stripped right down to the nub after she left in parked in a South Chicago hot spot under emergency circumstances. He recites the litany of every bad thing she has ever permitted to happen to every single car she’s owned and brought to him, and I laughed out loud as I read it. I would quote it here, but for that I am supposed to wait for the published copy to be sure it hasn’t been altered, and that won’t happen, since you need to know to order your copy right now.

In closing, there are four things you need to remember. First, don’t just pack your gun; pack enough ammunition to get you through your misadventures. Second, technology is a great boon to those that collect threatening evidence against bad guys; scan your pictures, your receipts, your photos and damning letters and put them in the Cloud where bad guys can’t get to them. Third, try to stay away from the cement mafia if at all possible. The things they do to their enemies just aren’t pretty. And fourth, in an unfair scrap when they’re bigger than you are, go for the ankles!

Oh, there’s so much more, but hey, that’s what the book itself is for. It’s not due out till the end of the month, but you can reserve your copy now. Do it!