Crime writer Sara Paretsky has caused me many late nights and forced me to lie in many lukewarm and colder baths down the years. She writes short, often wittily-titled, chapters that have a cliff-hanger component that make you think “I’ll just read one more…” again and again. Her latest paperback, her 24th, is no exception.
Paretsky’s female Private Eye is V.I. Warshawski and her milieu is Chicago. Dead Land is up to date with a throwaway comment about the legal problems of a couple of Trump’s advisers and a sub-plot about armed militias and people believing right-wing conspiracies. But some things don’t change: her support group of an elderly doctor and a cranky neighbour and her frustrating relationship with a local journalist. And the basic storyline of big money ruining her city. Somehow you just know that if Warshawski turns up at a small community meeting about Chicago maybe redeveloping a shoreline wildlife park that dark money has changed hands, someone will be bumped off and that Warshawski will be in peril. Formulaic? Maybe, but you get to know the city – you can almost hear the planes coming in to land at O’Hare – and in this book she causes you to search your memory about what the Chicago School of economists were up to in Chile in the 1970s because the past is never just the past. The Chicago Boys – as they were called – have a lot to answer for.
Chicago is of course not Nottingham but is it really true that heads of Council departments (in this case Parks) go round with hired muscle and police protection? Maybe, it is America… It’s certainly scary when she includes the sentence, justifying her unofficial crime fighting that “Chicago police clear only 17% of our homicides each year.”
If I had a criticism it is that like other semi-formulaic books (I’m thinking of Robert Parker) there comes a moment when you feel you have had enough; enough of Warshawski’s neighbour Mr Contreras and her guardian angel Charlotte Herschel (both of whom must be about 105 by now), her running to the Lake with her dogs, the mentions of her opera-loving late mother and her late Chicago policeman father.
But after a few books away, this is what drew me back, comfort reading, and the promise of a bath that starts off hot and ends lukewarm at best.