Wow! The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is fast approaching the end of our journey! Thanks as always to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for the safe (?) trip; it’s been a wild and wicked journey thus far and I’m sure the last three weeks will be, too. Today our tour has stopped at at historic W-Ville. Everyone’s going out to have a look at the town but before I join them let me share my contribution for this week’s stop: Sara Paretsky’s Victoria Iphigenia (V.I. or ‘Vic’) Warshawski.
For those of you who haven’t yet ‘met’ her, V.I. Warshawski is a former attorney turned private investigator. She’s lived all of her life in Chicago and really couldn’t imagine living and working anywhere else. Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, she’s a Cubs fan and in a lot of other ways too, she is a real product and reflection of the city. And that’s one of the appealing things about Warshawski. As I like to think of her, she’s half Italian, half Polish and all Chicago. That unique fit of sleuth to setting is really helpful to Warshawski when it comes to her work. She knows the city very, very well and has developed connections through a lifetime of living there.
Warshawski was one of the first ‘hard boiled’ female private investigators, along with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and just before them, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone. She’s not afraid to get into a fight if that’s what it takes, and she’s gotten into more than her share. While she is sometimes rash, it’s hard not to respect her refusal to back down. For instance in Indemnity Only, she tangles with some very nasty local gangsters as she tries to find out the truth behind the murder of young Pete Thayer and the disappearance of his girlfriend Anita McGraw. Although she frequently gets her share of ‘battle scars,’ Warshawski doesn’t back down from a good fight, so to speak.
One of the reasons that she doesn’t shy away from conflict is that Warshawski has a strong personal commitment to those in trouble. For example, in Hard Times, she’s on her way home from a big event with her assistant Mary Louise Neely and Mary Louise’s protégée Emily Messenger when they come upon a woman lying in the road, possibly the victim of a hit-and-run incident. Warshawski insists on stopping to help and Mary Louise summons the police. The woman, who turns out to be Nicola Aguinaldo, dies in emergency surgery and for a time it’s suspected that Warshawski might have been responsible for her death. In fact it turns out that she’s being framed. Warshawki is determined to find out what happened to the victim and her interest ends up getting her involved in corruption in the prison security system as well as some ‘dirty linen’ being kept secret by the global entertainment industry.
Warshawski also has a strong sense of justice. That desire to right wrongs is also an appealing aspect of her character. To list every novel in which she fights against corporate corruption, organized greed and so on would require me to go on a lot longer than you probably want me to. Suffice it to say that Warshawski is happy to go up against racism, anti-Semitism, corporate greed, union thuggery and a lot more. Her passion for justice gets her into real trouble at times (more on that in a moment) and won’t be to every reader’s taste. But she practices what she preaches so to speak and it’s hard not to respect someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes – including risking her own life – to set things right.
Another appealing element in Warshawski’s character is her compassion. She cares about the individuals whose cases she takes and most definitely sees them as more than just entries into her account books. For instance, when she discovers the body of Pete Thayer in Indemnity Only, she cares very much about the effect of his murder on his family and takes a particular interest in his younger sister Jill. In Fire Sale, Warshawski investigates abuses at discount-store giant By-Smart. Her interest in the company doesn’t come about only because of her sense of ‘doing the right thing.’ It’s also very much motivated by her compassion for Rose Dorrado, who works at a small flag-making company. Warshawski meets Dorrado in the course of her duties as coach of a girls’ basketball team that includes Dorrado’s daughter. Dorrado tells her that there’s been sabotage where she works. If the company closes she won’t be able to take care of her family and sabotage seems to be what By-Smart wants. It’s that concern for the Dorrado family that, as much as anything else, spurs Warshawski to look into By-Smart’s practices.
Of course, Warshawski is far from perfect and that actually adds to her appeal, for me at least. She can be headstrong and opinionated and that gets her and sometimes her friends in trouble. She doesn’t always go as far as being completely reckless, but sometimes her dedication to what she’s doing affects her judgement. For instance in Total Recall, her investigation of possible insurance obstruction is related to the case of Paul Rabudka, who claims he’s a Holocaust survivor. Warshawski’s close friend Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel turns out to be closely tied to this case and emotionally very drawn into it. And more than once Lotty is put in direct danger because of Warshawski’s investigations.
And yet, Warshawski’s compassion, courage and determination have won the loyalty of her friends, even those who risk much for her. Lotty Herschel is one example. So is Warshawski’s landlord and friend Mr. Contreras. There are many other examples too. It’s not hard to see why either. Warshawski may not always be prudent but she is devoted to her friends and quite loyal to them. And that’s another real appeal of her character.
Warshawski isn’t a ‘cookie-cutter’ ‘hardboiled’ PI, either. She has a distinctive character. She loves opera as much as she loves the Cubs. She likes jeans and Jack Daniels but isn’t opposed to dressing up and going out on the town with a date. She’s got a blue-collar background but is educated enough to be able to communicate easily with those from more affluent backgrounds. Although she is a complex character who has her own scars to bear, she doesn’t wallow in drink or drugs. She’s got a very strong spirit and it’s hard not to admire that about her. I’m quite certain that if I needed to hire V.I. Warshawski, she would take my case just as seriously as she would take an injustice to a close friend of hers. And that’s a real endorsement.