By Kathy Blumenstock
Monday, September 13, 2010; C02
By Sara Paretsky
Putnam. 443 pp. $26.95
A Chicago nightspot featuring nude performance art is hardly V.I. Warshawski's top choice for entertainment. The feisty private detective, who has figured in 14 previous mysteries by Sara Paretsky, would likely prefer watching a Cubs game, sipping Johnnie Walker with old friends or taking a lakeside run with her dogs. But as "Body Work" opens, V.I. -- Vic to her pals -- is at Club Gouge to keep an eye on her impulsive young cousin Petra, who's waitressing there for the awesome tips paid by those eager to glimpse the mysterious Body Artist.
Attired only in makeup, the Artist invites clubgoers to paint on her naked expanse, while Web cameras broadcast every brushstroke. One volunteer, Nadia Guaman, draws intricate pink-and-gray scrollwork topped by a female face, a design that prompts an enraged response from Chad Vishneski, an Iraqi war veteran in the audience. When V.I. overhears Chad and Nadia shouting, each accusing the other of spying, she wonders who, if anyone, is really a spy and what they're trying to find out. And when Nadia is shot and killed after leaving Club Gouge, V.I. is drawn into a case as enigmatic as the Body Artist herself.
As in other V.I. Warshawski stories, crime-solving mingles with social issues. Last year "Hardball" recalled the racial tensions of the 1960s, and earlier books have explored political favors ("Burn Marks"), medical malpractice ("Bitter Medicine"), and the plights of the elderly ("Guardian Angel") and of immigrant families ("Fire Sale"). In "Body Work," Paretsky shows how the war in Iraq has affected those who've seen it up close, as well as those who've endured its losses back home.
The prime suspect in Nadia's murder is Chad, whose apparent suicide attempt doesn't prevent the police from arresting him. His parents hire V.I. to clear his name, certain that their son, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, is innocent. The investigation twists back to Club Gouge and the Body Artist. Why is the club's muscleman using her as a message board, painting numbers and letters positioned for the Web cameras? And what was Nadia drawing on her? While V.I. hunts for a link between the dead woman and the accused veteran, the Body Artist vanishes, taking her answers with her.
V.I. may favor golden retrievers, but her terrier-like persistence keeps digging up details. She learns the horrific reason behind Nadia's artwork and uncovers Chad's disturbing discovery about the war. Her usual posse provides both support and frustration, and Chad's fellow vets, who address V.I. as "ma'am," add their own expertise and perspective.
Since her 1982 arrival on the mystery scene, V.I. has aged and adapted. No more Olivetti typewriter for reports: She now deciphers texts, syncs her cellphone and laptop to aggregate photos, and plugs background searches into Web sites. But her signature physical toughness hasn't faltered, despite shootings, beatings and enough concussions for a discount on MRIs. Now facing 50, V.I. is still quick with her fists, and she proudly describes herself as a street-fighter. That she is, readily taking on thugs from Club Gouge as she collects bruises and clues.
Her protective instincts remain steady, too, whether she's taking in Nadia's injured sister or riding herd on her own impetuous cousin. That highly responsible nature stems from her upbringing: "Growing up the way I did," V.I. says, "my mother dying when I was in high school, my father forced to turn the house and meals over to me, I felt as though I'd been born old. . . . I wondered for a moment if my whole detective practice was built on my private history of being an adolescent caretaker."
Don't expect V.I. to change careers, though. Her skill set is just the right fit for a one-woman detective agency, cracking complex cases, and taking us along for the action.
Blumenstock is a writer and blogger in Washington.