A Woman of Mystery

Tracy Van Slyke

Author Sara Paret­sky broke ground in con­tem­po­rary mys­tery writ­ing with the 1982 debut of V.I. War­shaws­ki, a tough-talk­ing, hard-boiled and inde­pen­dent female detec­tive. Through her char­ac­ter, Paret­sky opened the door for female pro­tag­o­nists and read­ers, show­ing that the genre wasn’t just for men any­more. More than 20 years lat­er, mys­tery fans can walk into any book­store and see female authors and char­ac­ters dom­i­nat­ing the shelves.

Through­out a dozen books, War­shaws­ki has become a char­ac­ter that mil­lions devot­ed­ly fol­low. Much of this loy­al­ty comes from her strengths, flaws and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties — char­ac­ter­is­tics with which read­ers read­i­ly iden­ti­fy. In the course of her inves­ti­ga­tions and butt kick­ing, War­shaws­ki gets hurt, becomes sick, makes bad deci­sions, gets cranky, wor­ries about bills and most of the time doesn’t care or have time for make­up or fine clothes.

I cre­at­ed her very much because I was tired of the way women were depict­ed in the tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can noir form, “ Paret­sky says. Either exist­ing only in the body or being chaste … and there­fore unable to solve the most fun­da­men­tal prob­lems of their lives — or being sex­u­al­ly active and there­fore being wicked.”

Paretsky’s quest to rede­fine crime writ­ing has extend­ed beyond the page. Under­stand­ing the bar­ri­ers that women authors face to get their work rec­og­nized, in 1986 Paret­sky helped found Sis­ters in Crime (www​.sis​tersin​crime​.org). The 3,600-member orga­ni­za­tion helps female mys­tery writ­ers gain the atten­tion of pub­lish­ers, crit­ics and read­ers and combat[s] dis­crim­i­na­tion against women in the mys­tery field.”

While many writ­ers of the crime genre claim their sto­ries are ripped from the head­lines, Paret­sky imbues her char­ac­ter with her own fem­i­nist sen­si­bil­i­ties and anx­i­eties. This gives her work a more real” qual­i­ty than much fic­tion, and even main­stream news media, often commands.

In pre­vi­ous books, her char­ac­ters con­front­ed the Holo­caust, home­less­ness and cor­rup­tion in the prison sys­tem. And although she didn’t set out to write an overt­ly polit­i­cal book this time, her lat­est nov­el, Black­list, takes place soon after the U.S. inva­sion of Afghanistan.

Paret­sky orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to write about a crime com­mit­ted dur­ing the McCarthy era but was pulled toward the over­whelm­ing par­al­lels between that time and the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate. With Amer­i­ca still reel­ing from 911, in Black­list War­shaws­ki con­fronts the USA Patri­ot Act, hides a young fugi­tive accused of ter­ror­ism and ducks the FBI.

I start­ed writ­ing it right about the time of the attack on the World Trade Cen­ter,” Paret­sky explains. I was pret­ty much like every­one else in the coun­try, in a state of shock and numb­ness and hav­ing a hard time get­ting mov­ing. So I start­ed a sto­ry that would let me retreat a lit­tle from the present … but as I was work­ing on the nov­el, of course, the events of the day were not remote.”

Dur­ing the last half of the nov­el, War­shaws­ki con­tends with the state threat­en­ing her con­sti­tu­tion­al rights — search­ing her home, tap­ping her phone and fol­low­ing her car, all with­out a war­rant. As the P.I. evades the FBI, read­ers are con­front­ed with the ways the gov­ern­ment can invade one’s pri­va­cy — as much in fic­tion as in real life.

When my com­put­er crashed and I lost all my e‑mails, my hus­band said, Why don’t you write to John Ashcroft and ask him for copy?’ And we were both laugh­ing, but you know, it could be true,” Paret­sky says. I have a friend who works for the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee [a faith-based social change orga­ni­za­tion]… and he was in the office the day they found out that some­one on their staff was actu­al­ly an under­cov­er cop who had walked of with all their emails. This is four weeks ago, not 40 years ago.”

Paretksy’s abil­i­ty to com­bine the imag­i­na­tive with the authen­tic explains why her books will remain rel­e­vant, even if always rel­e­gat­ed to pop­u­lar fic­tion book­shelves. At the root of all suc­cess­ful crime nov­els, Paretksy says, is fear — and Paretsky’s, as well as many oth­ers, is at the cen­ter of Black­list.

I’m as ner­vous and anx­ious about these uncer­tain times as any­one else and I get more afraid every day as we seem to be spi­ral­ing more and more out of con­trol,” says the writer. The trou­ble with these times is that I don’t trust my own judg­ment, but I cer­tain­ly don’t trust the judg­ment of the admin­is­tra­tion, either.”

Tra­cy Van Slyke, a for­mer pub­lish­er of In These Times, is the project direc­tor for The Media Consortium.
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