By Sara Paretsky
Putnam. 465 pp. $26.95
When Sara Paretsky first introduced V.I. Warshawski in her 1982 novel, “Indemnity Only,” she was praised for having created the first credible female private investigator in American crime fiction, one who made her living in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. Warshawski was an immediately engaging, even complex character: physically tough but no bully, courageous yet cautious, plain-spoken, self-doubting, credible.
Thirty-one years and 15 Warshawski novels later, she is still instantly recognizable, typically in motion. “After four miles, I was moving in an easy rhythm that made me want to keep going all the way to the Indiana border,” she reports of a morning run in Paretsky’s latest novel. “It was hard to turn around and face a day in a chair, but I was one of those people who keep their feet on the ground, their shoulder to the wheel, their nose to the grindstone. What a boring person I must be.” Warshawski’s musician boyfriend is on tour, she and her faithful neighbor take care of their dogs, and her assignments are mundane. We smile, of course, knowing that she has already stumbled into her latest labyrinthine adventure.
“Critical Mass” takes Warshawski from the streets of Chicago to a Midwestern methamphetamine farm and to the cafés of Vienna, immersing her in a drama that encompasses Nazi crimes and postwar atomic research, present-day industrial espionage and government coverup. It starts with a frantic phone call to the office of Warshawski’s old friend, Dr. Lotty Herschel. A patient, Judy Binder, has left a message saying that someone is trying to kill her. Judy begs for help and then vanishes, prompting Lotty, who grew up with Judy’s mother in Vienna, to ask Warshawski to track her down.
The search leads first to the meth lab. “I felt tiny and vulnerable under the blue bowl of the sky,” Warshawski observes. “It closed over the earth in all directions, seeming to shut out air, to let in nothing but light and heat.” The man-made environment is even harsher. “A giant pit, filled with refuse and stinking of chemicals, had been dug near the shed. Jugs, spray cans of solvent, and all the other fixings of a meth operation fought with coffee grounds and chicken bones for top stench.” This is Paretsky at her best, describing with a reporter’s eye and a painter’s vision the light and texture of a place. A scene that throbs with menace concludes with a shock.
A photograph that Warshawski finds in the farmhouse soon draws her into a wider, deeper mystery. In the picture, three women and five men, in 1930s clothing, pose solemnly “around a large metal egg balanced on a giant tripod. It looked like a cartoon version of a pod landing from outer space.” The pod, Warshawski learns, is a proton accelerator, and the people are scientists at the Radiation Research Institute in Vienna, a center of atomic studies. One of them is Martina Saginor, the grandmother of the missing Judy Binder. In 1941, Martina, a Jewish scientist, was sent to work in a German facility dedicated to the construction of an atomic bomb — and there’s an ominous connection to a present-day defense contractor. Warshawski knows that she has, once again, waded into deep waters.
As always, Paretsky has done extensive research, and her dense, gratifyingly brief scientific explanations link together the betrayal, theft and murder at the novel’s core. The links between characters, past and present, are less crisp. It is easy to lose track of the connections between relatives, let alone physicists. And the introduction of a student turned Nazi torturer, turned anti-nuclear activist, is perhaps one twist too many. Yet the tension, palpable from the first page, is sustained and deftly heightened by brief flashbacks to a wartime and postwar world of shifting loyalties and dangers. “I have been in Nazi camps and Communist camps,” Martina attests, “and one is not different from the other.” Warshawski, for her part, must confront not only killers but also crooked federal agents. Which she does, as always, without breaking her stride.
Mundow frequently reviews mysteries for Book World.