November 17, 2013

Review: Body Work

Body Work
Body Work by Sara Paretsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, I bought a lot of mysteries. While I appreciated an intricate jigsaw puzzle of a plot (and still do), the greatest attraction of a mystery, for me, is the main character. Since most mysteries are series that stretch out over several books, the protagonist has to be damn interesting to keep me reading. I particularly like series where the lead character grows older, acknowledges that, and deals with it. I also like series where the characters and plot are more or less contemporary with current events; obviously the time involved with writing and publishing each individual book means the author can't keep up with things in real time, but I prefer a mystery that hews as closely to this ideal as possible.

Once upon a time, I snapped up Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone books on sight, along with Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski books, among others. But after reading an interview where Grafton said Kinsey was, and would remain, stuck in the 80's, my enthusiasm for the "alphabet" books quickly waned. I recently flipped through the last book--Grafton is up to "W"--and once I saw the date for said book was 1988, I put it back. As much as I love Guns n'Roses, the 80's was not a good decade for this country, and I don't care to revisit it.

But I still buy Sara Paretsky's books. Why is that? Because V.I. Warshawski's cases and world is set in our contemporary timeline, V.I. herself is growing older, and Paretsky makes no bones about either. In this book, a small but significant plot point is V.I.'s turning fifty, and her relationships with younger people, particularly younger feminists. (V.I. is a proud second-wave feminist, and she doesn't let you forget it.) Even more so, the plot deals with Iraq, and mentions Barack Obama as a brief aside. Of course, this makes it slightly dated, but I would rather have this more vital and meaningful setting than Sue Grafton's frozen and far removed one.

Not to mention the fact that V.I. Warshawski is simply a deeper, better, more fully rounded character. Her feminism, liberalism, and staunch opposition to the Iraq war is a bit of a transparent stand-in for the author's political leanings, but that doesn't make V.I., and the book as a whole, any less terrific. Paretsky's tendency for mousetrap plots that suddenly snap shut is on full display here: I spent a good two-thirds of the book wondering how the separate plot threads would come together, and when they do, over the course of only a few pages, the results are breathtaking.

I don't want to get in a fight with Kinsey Millhone fans. At one time, Kinsey appealed to me; she no longer does. But V.I. Warshawski is a character readers can grow old with, and I look forward to seeing how Sara Paretsky pulls it off.

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