Breakdown. By Sara Paretsky. Putnam. $26.95.
Just how complex do you want a mystery to be? How difficult a character do you want the mystery-solver to be? How convoluted do you want the twists and turns to be? If your answer to all three questions is “very,” Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels are likely to be near the top of your reading list already. Breakdown will keep them there, and maybe even elevate their place a notch or two.
This is Paretsky’s 17th novel. Of those, only two – Ghost Country (1998) and Bleeding Kansas (2008) – have not featured the female detective first introduced by Paretsky in Indemnity Only (1982). V.I. (Victoria Iphigenia, “Vic” to her friends) has not exactly aged well, although she has aged: in the new book, she is pushing 50. But she is recognizably the same woman she has been throughout this three-decade series: difficult, demanding, quite up to fighting when necessary, not always cooperative with the nuances of the law, but nevertheless inclined to sing along with opera and dress nicely – at least when her good outfits aren’t being trashed in her investigations, as several of them are in Breakdown. “Clothes are a projection of the self,” Vic remarks when one of her outfits proves to be unsalvageable. “I felt personally damaged.”
A multifaceted character, Vic, and not always a likable one in “the world where I spend most of my time, filled with the dying or the lying.” Readers might not want Vic as a friend or drinking companion (she prefers Johnnie Walker Black Label), but most would certainly want her on their side in a fight. And not just a street brawl – a political fight, too, which is a big part of the foundation of Paretsky’s latest book.
It takes an author of considerable skill to create as many confusions as Paretsky builds into Breakdown, and then to pull all the strands neatly together. The book starts with Vic being asked to find seven members of her cousin Petra’s book club, 12- and 13-year-old girls who are out after curfew. Turns out they are in a cemetery, invoking the spirit of the fictional female vampire, Carmilla, Queen of the Night (a nod there to J.S. Le Fanu’s 1872 novel, Carmilla). Also turns out that they are just steps away from a gentleman, or rather ex-gentleman, named Miles Wuchnik, who has been stabbed through the heart in a killing reminiscent of what happens in vampire novels. Wuchnik was a private investigator and not, it turns out, much of a gentleman. And Vic must have had something to do with his death – or so claims right-wing media darling and rabble-rouser Wade Lawlor, from whose party Vic was called to look for the tweens. It seems that one of the girls, Arielle, is the granddaughter of billionaire Chaim Salanter, a wealthy Jewish businessman, Holocaust survivor, and prominent contributor to the senatorial campaign of University of Illinois president Sophy Durango – who is running against creationist Helen Kendrick, whom Lawlor is backing.
Got all that? Then you don’t have the half of it. Vic compares this case to a Rubik’s Cube, and the metaphor is apt, because just as she tries to align certain elements, others go off into non-matching directions. Lawlor, whose one-dimensional bigotry is overstated in a way that will not surprise readers who know of Paretsky’s strong liberal leanings, uses his 24-hour-a-day cable network, GEN (“Global Entertainment Network”), to attack Salanter (as Durango’s proxy) with allegations about how he was really treated by the Nazis. The families of the girls from the cemetery have reasons for wanting to keep the murder quiet, and it is not just the rich and well-connected who feel that way: two of the girls are children of illegal immigrants, whose families want as little light shed on their circumstances as possible. And then there is the matter of Vic’s old friend, brilliant but deeply unreliable Leydon Ashford, a bipolar attorney who has fallen – or been pushed – from a gallery above the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel, and who provides a cryptic, repeatedly written comment, “I saw him on the catafalque.” Leydon’s mother wants Vic to keep her theories about what happened to her daughter quiet. And she is not the only one who wants Vic to take it easy: Salanter and Vic meet repeatedly, but not to try to solve the cemetery murder – Salanter wants Vic to stay away from the case. Furthermore, the various victims, it seems, have as many secrets as do the perpetrators.
Clearly, the various elements of Breakdown will turn out to be interconnected; indeed, the book’s title has multiple reference points, relating to everything from Leydon’s mental breakdown to the breakdown of civility in politics and by extension in society. Few readers are likely to figure out just how all the pieces join until Paretsky performs her usual sleight of hand – with impeccable logic – in a thrilling climax. Given Vic’s personality (she is a modern inheritor of the “hard-boiled” mantle, even though she is not above pointing out to readers the differences between herself and “a literary detective like Spenser or Marlowe”), and given her determination to see that social justice as well as legal justice is done (reflecting Paretsky’s own commitments to the mentally ill homeless, troubled teens, reproductive rights and other causes), readers will know that Vic will solve the case, or cases, come what may and no matter who gets hurt (herself included). The fascination here is in watching how Vic pulls together elements as disparate as a state mental hospital, class warfare, a wrongful conviction for murder, a couple of highly warped brother-sister relationships, and the incessant nastiness of modern politics – all within a framework that accurately portrays aspects of life in Chicago (where Paretsky lives) even when some of the specific settings are invented. Thirty years after introducing V.I. Warshawski, Paretsky still manages to keep her detective fresh, witty, plainspoken, filled with righteous anger, and dedicated to justice. Breakdown, which is written in Paretsky’s easy-to-read style and is well packed with hard-to-decipher (but scrupulously fair) clues and mysteries, is sure to be a best-seller, and deserves to be.