You get a real feel for Chicago…

Invincible VI Strikes Again

3rd July 2015

Kathy Miller talks to author Sara Paretsky about her latest thriller – set in Chicago, and starring her most popular and enduring character, the fearless VI...

One of Sara Paretsky’s favourite pieces of fan mail came from a Japanese woman, thanking her for creating a heroine who gave her the courage to stand up to her mother-in-law and buy a washing-machine.

The heroine in question is, of course, VI Warshawski, the fearless but very human private detective, loved and admired by readers all over the world for the way she stops at nothing in her pursuit of crooks in and around Chicago’s notorious South Side.

It is nearly 30 years since Paretsky published her first VI novel and although VI (short for Victoria Iphigenia) should now be approaching 60, Paretsky has kept her at ‘about 50’, with no signs of slowing down.

“There’s physically nothing of me in VI,” laughs Paretsky, who says her most strenuous exercise these days involves strolling along the shore of Lake Michigan with her dog.

“I tried to write about VI in real time at the beginning and so by now, the older characters should be dead, but everyone is staying alive and active; they’re not dealing with Alzheimers or real issues like everyone else. I wanted her to stay active, though her recovery time takes longer now.” (VI suffers plenty of rough treatment in her job).

Despite what she says, the writer isn’t taking life any easier than her heroine. At 67, Paretsky is about to embark on an international book tour to promote her 17th VI thriller, Brush Back, which sees the detective taking on an apparently invincible Mob enforcer in the gang-ridden streets around Chicago’s redundant steel mills.
She explains that Chicago is “unlike any other American city”, a place known both for organised crime and for being the third largest Catholic diocese in the world, with many families of Irish or Eastern European origin and where affiliations are almost tribal.

“There is still so much poverty and people still cling to their support networks [such as] their ethnicity or the institutions of their childhood,” she says.

With the steel works idle, the Church and baseball are mainstays for many people whose lives go on under the shadow of the ruthless Grozny Mob, a network of largely ex KGB thugs. “They are way more terrifying than the Mafia.” says Paretsky.

Paretsky has lived in South Chicago since 1966 and is married to a retired academic from the city’s University, who has three sons from his first marriage. Brought up in Kansas, Paretsky says she came from “a patriarchal background where I was just expected to stay home and be a baby-minder.”

Instead, the girl who idolised Margot Fonteyn but was “too physically awkward to be a ballerina” took herself off to Chicago, initially to work in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“I worked with white kids in high violence zones – kids who used to throw bottles at Martin Luther King. My job was to persuade them to look at the world in a different way,” she says simply. Later she sold computers to insurance agents, knowledge that would come in useful for Brush Back when VI hacks into someone’s bank account as part of her investigations.

Paretsky excels at creating well-rounded characters and at putting both them and us off the scent until the very end, which makes Brush Back (a baseball term for when the pitcher throws a ball to push the batter back) a perfect title.

As well as the suspense, what makes the novel such a page turner is that it is so well researched that even if you’ve never been to Chicago, you get a real feel for the place; you can almost hear the roar of the baseball crowd and smell the corruption in the politicians’ offices. Paretsky tells me that her inspiration for the storyline, which involves loan sharks and dangerous dust mountains of pet coke, came straight out of newspaper headlines.

She sets most of her novels in Chicago and says she knows from experience that setting her plots abroad would be a mistake. They just wouldn’t sound authentic.
“I did a lot of work with the London re-insurance market [in a previous career] and was tempted to set a novel at Lloyds, but I know I would get too many things wrong,” she admits.

“In one book, I devoted six chapters to life during the war for Lotty Herschel, who came to Britain from Austria via Kindertransport. I did a lot of research at the British Museum… and then I got lots of letters explaining the difference between tights and pantyhose in the 1940s!”

When we catch up, Paretsky has just returned from New York, where she attended a convention of Mystery Writers of America (of which she is currently president) and has just won yet another award for her writing. An early novel, Deadlock, was turned into a film in 1991 (starring Kathleen Turner as VI) and I ask whom she would choose to play the detective now.

“I really love Renée Zellweger, although I think she’s too old. I’d love to see [Chilean-American actress] Coté de Pablo play her.”

In case any film directors are reading this, she recommends another VI novel, Hardball, as a story that is “compact enough to make a good movie.” It is set during the 1960s ‘Martin Luther King riots’ that erupted in Chicago, which Paretsky says resonates with present day disturbances.

“I think of all the riots we have now. There have been lots of deaths of black men in police custody in Chicago recently,” she explains, before adding: “There is a secret torture site, ‘a black box’ that the Chicago police are operating, a story that was broken by [the British] Guardian.” She believes that the city has turned a blind eye to the torture ring and adds, intriguingly, that “it will make an appearance” – in her next novel, one hopes.

Because we speak during General Election week over here, we touch on the forthcoming Presidential Elections in the US and, given that Paretsky will be supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign, we turn inevitably to the subject of strong women as role models and to VI’s enduring appeal.

“Readers like her sense of humour. She’s loyal and stands up for causes and people she believes in. She’s the imaginary friend of a child, my alter ego, she keeps me going. She knows what she wants and she’s intrepid – and I’m not.”

To illustrate her point further, Paretsky ends by citing another piece of fan mail, a lovely letter she once received from a man in Manchester, who spoke of his admiration for VI and her qualities.

“He said that VI reminded him of why he fell in love with his wife when she was driving an ambulance during the Blitz. I treasure that letter.”

Sara Paretsky is speaking at the Royal Masonic School, Rickmansworth, as the guest of Chorleywood Bookshop on Friday 17 July at 7.30pm. Doors open 7pm.

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