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The Past Puts Up a Fight

By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 28, 2009

HARDBALL

By Sara Paretsky

Putnam. 446 pp. $26.95

On his vacation last month, President Obama stuffed a couple of crime novels into his beach tote along with the more predictable tomes on American history and global warming. George Pelecanos's "The Way Home" and Richard Price's "Lush Life" speak to the president's excellent taste in suspense fiction: Both are morally complicated tales of what Edgar Allan Poe presciently termed "urban shock." But, to round out the First Reader's literary crime spree, someone in the administration should have had the initiative to score an advance copy of Sara Paretsky's extraordinary new V.I. Warshawski mystery, "Hardball." (Ignore the unfortunate association of that title with Chris Matthew's nightly shout-a-thon on MSNBC; Paretsky means to invoke Chicago-style baseball and politics.)

Like the president, Paretsky first came to Chicago, the city that became her home, to do community service. As she tells readers in a short prefatory essay, in the summer of 1966 she worked in the Chicago Presbytery's "Summer of Service" and was a first-hand witness to the efforts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists -- some of them her neighbors -- to desegregate housing in the city. Paretsky also witnessed the riots that erupted when angry white Chicagoans -- some of them her neighbors -- attacked the police for protecting King and those who worked with him. That summer, Paretsky recalls, was "the defining time" of her life, and it also holds the key to the present-day mystery that absorbs her well-known detective, V.I. Warshawski, in "Hardball."

This is an ambitious novel layered in the grit of recent American racial history. Paretsky has always written intelligent mysteries, but sometimes -- as she did in "Blacklist," her excellent 2003 Warshawski novel that wrestled with the legacy of McCarthyism -- she strives for more, realizing the potential of the homegrown hard-boiled detective genre to investigate the more troubling mysteries at the heart of our national identity. V.I. is pulled back into the past early on in "Hardball" when she rescues an unconscious homeless man from the city streets and is asked by the hospital chaplain, who takes note of V.I.'s act of charity, to locate the missing son of an elderly African American woman who's in the hospital's assisted living facility.

One consistently sharp feature of the Warshawski series is that it never glosses over the practical details of detective work. So after V.I. informs the chaplain that she expects to be paid for her labor and they bicker over (already reduced) fees, the chaplain makes the assignment even more unattractive: It seems that the missing young man, Lamont Gadsden, vanished during a blizzard in the winter of 1967. Gadsen had been part of a neighborhood gang that had helped protect King. There's the slightest wisp of a possibility that Gadsden's disappearance might have been linked to his political activity.

As V.I. wrestles with this thankless task, Paretsky throws in a brilliant plot complication in the form of V.I.'s 23-year-old cousin, Petra, who turns up in Chicago to work on the Senate campaign of a rising star. Charming, cellphone-wielding Petra has always enjoyed the luxury of the entitled: that is, the luxury to regard life as something of a lark. Petra's dad and V.I.'s father were brothers separated by 20 years and, eventually, by the chasm of social class: V.I.'s late father was a Chicago policeman; Petra's father is a high-flying business executive. In a Sylvia Plath-like moment, V.I., whose politics and life choices have been crucially shaped by the second women's movement, ruminates on Petra's unselfconscious use of the word "Daddy":

"When Daddy's in your head, he's the biggest thing there. He doesn't have a first name or a smaller identity like 'my dad.' You think everyone knows who Daddy is. Did that mean my uncle was himself a bullying presence in Petra's life or just that she was still very young?"

Petra eventually goes missing and, like Gadsden's, her disappearance is tied to a Warshawski family secret dating from that violent summer of 1966 in Chicago. But the particulars of what happens to Petra here are of lesser importance than what she represents in the V.I. Warshawski series. From the moment that V.I. made her debut in the 1982 mystery "Indemnity Only," she and her creator have been criticized for being humorless feminists. (Indeed, in "Hardball," V.I. is told that it "wouldn't hurt . . . to smile more at people.") Inserting the Millennium Gen Petra into this novel allows V.I. and Paretsky to respond to their newest wave of detractors -- those young women who would never dream of identifying themselves as feminists, but who regard their lives as a delicious menu of choices. V.I. may be graying and sometimes a tad grim, but she's still the gal you want beside you in a fight, be it short, dirty and physical or a longer campaign for social justice. In "Hardball" -- a standout, nuanced mystery about civil rights struggles past and present -- V.I. demonstrates, once again, that when push comes to shove, the scrappiest street fighters are from Chicago.

Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on detective fiction at Georgetown University.

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