I have met a terrific new woman. We were introduced by Nancy Woodhull, who is president of Gannett News Service, but more to the point at hand, an avid mystery reader, which I am not.

Or was not. Thus, I'd never met V.I. Warshawski, female private eye, and the feminist heroine of Sara Paretsky's series of crime mysteries. I'd seen favorable reviews of her books, but I'd never read any until Woodhull sent "Burn Marks" over. My family will testify to the fact that I had a hard time putting it down.

It wasn't so much the plot that engaged me, It was the character of V.I. Warshawski. She is the most fully developed, interesting and human woman to emerge from the pages of a novel in a long time. She makes the women that Judith Krantz and Danielle Steele create look like one-dimensional creations of froth. Warshawski is somebody who could easily be your friend. In fact, female friendships are important to the plot.

So are family relationships. So is the atavistic bias on the part of Chicago's cops and political establishment against liberated women. Warshawski's got a heart of gold and a chip on her shoulder that she acquired early in life. Like a lot of people.

I have no clear idea of what she looks like, other than she's 5 feet 8 inches and keeps her weight around 130 pounds. Warshawski is much more interested in body tone -- she jogs and lifts weights -- than in skin tone. And Paretsky is much more intrigued by her heroine's work life than her sex life.

"He was a sweet and thoughtful lover," is the steamiest line in the book. And at 5 a.m., Warshawski couldn't get to sleep again so she left a note and drove home. She is the antithesis of the dependent woman who is looking for Mr. Wonderful to protect her. She doesn't fall in love in the book and she doesn't marry a billionaire and, believe it or not, there's still a very satisfactory ending.

Part of what's endearing about V.I. Warshawski is that she is very much a working woman. She's the daughter of a cop, a lawyer by training who worked in the public defender's office before doing what a lot of women do who are working in hostile environments: getting out on her own. She became a private eye, with her own, one-woman agency.

In "Burn Marks," the sixth V.I. Warshawski mystery, our heroine has something else in common with ordinary working women: an imperfect family that has a way of intruding on one's work at the most bothersome times.

In this case, it is Aunt Elena, a drunken bum, who is burned out of a fleabag hotel when it is torched and who shows up a 3 a.m. at V.I.'s apartment. Later, both V.I. and Elena are trapped in another arson and both are hospitalized, with Elena probably needing after-care and the mess falling in V.I.'s lap.

Her thoughts are those of every care giver who has been asked to go one step beyond endurance. "I was tormented wondering how much I owed my aunt. Would my uncle Peter thrash in guilt for saying no? Of course not. I hadn't even called to ask him -- my tired brain wasn't up to rebutting his smugness. Did I have a duty to Elena that overrode all considerations of myself, my work, my own longing for wholeness?

"I'd held glasses of water for Gabriella {her mother} when her arms were too weak to lift them herself, emptied wheelchair pots for Tony {her father} when he could no longer move from chair to toilet. I've done enough, I kept repeating, I've done enough. But I couldn't quite convince myself."

Professionally, V.I. is aggressive, which drives the crooked Chicago cops in the plot crazy. They accuse her of setting fires and causing all manner of trouble. But her biggest offense is not knowing her place in the male-female hierarchy. She commits at least one break-in, she carries a gun when necessary and shoots it when she has to. She also has the kind of normal physical reactions working women can relate to: When she is stressed out and exhausted, she gets a hammering headache.

And when the crooked cop she had a fling with tells her he was prepared to do whatever was necessary so she could live in splendor as his wife, she says: "I have what I want, Michael. My independence and my privacy. You've just never understood it, have you, that all those things, those diamonds and stuff, just don't turn me on."

What Sara Paretsky has done is defy the stereotypes of women in modern fiction. She has created a character that expands the limits of women's possibilities in fiction instead of using her literary talents to reinforce the ancient stereotypes of what women should be and what makes them happy. V.I. Warshawski is a woman other women can relate to. She wants to be a person, not a princess. She's a feminist, working woman and a terrific read.