Sara Paretsky is an excellent writer of popular fiction - as her sales will attest - but she is also a novelist who combines good writing with an examination of topical subjects. Most novelists will not try to tackle some of today's social problems. The reader always knows Paretsky's social views by reading her books.
Paretsky's newest novel, "Breakdown", is an examination of how right-wing radio and politicians affect American society. It's an edgy book, with a Glen Beck-like TV and radio commentator stirring up hatred for illegal aliens and Jews and blacks on a Fox News-like network. And a Sarah Palin-like female politician who looks to lock down the votes of like-minded Illinois voters in a US Senate race. She's running against a black woman and she and the radio host come out with racial epitaphs that might be disturbing to the reader. It's sort of Fox-News-on-steroids.
But if racial and other bigotry is part of the story, then Paretsky's heroine "VI Warshawski" is the other part. Maybe a little old at 50 to do the dangerous physical work and sustaining the hits she does, Warshawski remains the center of the story and the personalities she's involved in. The story, which is set in current day Chicago, brings in everything from the Holocaust to the above mentioned right-wing politics, to several murders, much of it with a mental health facility connection. The old favorites from Paretsky's previous books are back - Mr Conteras, cousin-Petra,and the dogs of the household are just a few of the old friends we meet in a new story.
"Breakdown" is a terrific book; Paretsky's done herself proud with the newest. But it is her most overtly "political" and might be too much so to a reader looking for a "light" read. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but then my politics and sympathies are right in tune with Paretsky's.
Picking up the latest Sara Paretsky book is like sitting down with an old friend to hear a new story. Paretsky penned her first book featuring private investigator V.I. Warshawski in 1982. Nearly thirty years later, the newly released Breakdown is the fifteenth book in this long running series.
V.I. receives a frantic call from her cousin Petra late one night - a group of girls holding a initiation ceremony based on their favourite author's vampire books get more than they bargained for when they stumble across a corpse - staked through the heart. And these aren't just any teens - they're the offspring of some of Chicago's wealthiest and politically powerful families. Rescuing the girls makes V.I. late for a meeting with her old friend Leydon Ashford. By the time V.I. makes their meeting, it's too late - either troubled Leydon has jumped from a balcony or she was pushed. In a coma, she is unable to let anyone know what happened. As V.I. decides to investigate further into both of these seemingly disparate occurrences, she is warned off - by more than one party. Of course, that only fuels V.I.'s fire....
What has made this such an enduring series? V.I. has aged and her life has progressed in real time. She was a character I liked from the first book and my opinion hasn't changed. She's true to her principles and beliefs, always with an eye towards justice. Now, that's not to say that she won't bend the rules just a bit to get the results she needs. And she's tough, having taken more than her fair share of hard knocks. But she gives as good as she gets. She says what she thinks, she's smart, loyal and someone you'd want on your side. "...sometimes you are so single-minded in your search for answers that you don't always think of the consequences."
Paretsky's plotting is always good - the mysteries are intricate and not easily solved. It is the personal issues and plot lines that elevate this series beyond a simple whodunit. It almost feels like V.I. and her friends and family are real people. The writing and reading flow effortlessly.
You can certainly read Breakdown without having read any of the others in this series, but I bet you'll be hunting down her backlist once you discover this fantastic female protagonist!
"He will not allow me to catch my breath,
But fills me with bitterness." -- Job 9:18 (NKJV)
V.I. is back, pulled into all kinds of events that aren't really her problem . . . but which she kindly takes on as her own responsibilities. That's what makes her an appealing heroine for this series. A challenge in the beginning is that new challenges pile up a lot faster than she can deal with them. Helping her cousin Petra with the members of a youth reading club quickly escalates into a murder investigation and political fodder for a particularly nasty contest between a liberal candidate V.I. approves of and her opponent who seems to know no limits to her sleazy attacks. As often occurs in these novels, V.I. is opposed at every turn by those with evil intent and the rich who are either clueless or highly inconsiderate. The threat of death and mayhem are strong in this story and make for a chilling read.
I found the book to be more than a little over the top in characterizing the right-wingers in the story. I'm sure you can find people with these identical beliefs and tactics, but it didn't ring true for me. As a result, the story was diluted unnecessarily in a number of places.
If you haven't thought much lately about the problems of those with mental illness or various mental limitations, this novel will serve a good purpose in presenting reasons why it's important to take their circumstances seriously . . . because they may not be able to do that for themselves.