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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    At 75, Sara Paretsky, the pioneering crime writer, has changed — but doesn’t plan to stop

    CHICAGO — Sara Paretsky returned to the scene of the crime. It was early June and traffic in River North on a Saturday morning was slow and quiet. Pet owners, pooches, strollers and the smell of toast. Paretsky was walking her dog along the north branch of the Chicago River. She was also out of poop bags. She asked a stranger for a spare. The woman, tugging back at the reins of her own dog, warned Paretsky not to come any closer. The woman’s dog punctuated this, straining and choking at its leash.

    Paretsky stretched out a cautious arm to accept a fresh bag and the woman hustled away behind her restless Labrador. Then Paretsky turned and could not find the poop that her dog had just left. The poop was there one minute but then gone the next. I couldn’t find it, either. Though I was aware of it. The odor remained. It was a mystery.

    “Hmmm,” Paretsky said. “Strange.”

    We moved on, covering the waterfront.

    Paretsky knows the waterfront.

    In “Deadlock,” her second novel, a member of the Chicago Blackhawks is murdered on a local shipping dock, a crime that leads to much uglier, far-reaching offenses, and eventually the mansions of the North Shore.

    “Overboard,” her new novel, about yet another conspiracy just beneath the veil of everyday Chicago, is her 21st mystery featuring her beloved private detective V.I. Warshawski. Paretsky began publishing V.I.’s adventures 40 years ago, helping to spark a revolution in crime writing that transformed the genre.

    They also serve, by now, as a kind of ongoing mirror history of Illinois. Read them all and you would have a fairly decent understanding of the social upheavals and political machinations of the past four decades in Chicago. Or just GPS the locations in a V.I. Warshawski novel and tour the city.

    Paretsky has a hard time writing. Her friends mention this. She mentions this. She never feels like a real writer. She watches TED Talks by writers who describe a process, she hears in workshops that books need five acts — she has no idea what these people mean. “I’m doing it wrong, I assume.” It’s strange to hear after two dozen books, millions of readers and a legacy of activism that expanded the profession in which she works. OK, her plots could be tighter. Publishers Weekly noted, in an otherwise positive review, “Overboard” strained credulity. Paretsky thought, “You’re telling me!” She didn’t like the ending, “which did strain credulity, but then, in 2022, I feel the world strains credulity.”

    Like any consistent genre writer with a long history, Paretsky is taken for granted.

    “When she and a few writers like her arrived at the same time, it marked a departure we didn’t notice right away,” said Dominick Abel, her longtime agent. “But it was the start of strong females in an area once dominated by hard-boiled men. She changed things.”

    Paretsky turned 75 earlier this summer. That may come as a shock if you remember her arrival as a brave, energetic voice that brushed cobwebs out of the antiquated image of nosy British dowager sleuths, poisoned husbands and tea. Paretsky is at that age where authors are evaluated, and some retire, or merely phone it in. Outwardly at least, she doesn’t seem interested in this stuff. The posterity stuff. She doesn’t plan to stop, and the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America on her living room mantle — along with her formal designation by the group as a “Grand Master,” a title she shares with Agatha Christie, Stephen King, James M. Cain and John le Carré — remind you her legacy is secure. There will be no victory lap. Just a new V.I. book every two years, from here to eternity.

    But Paretsky herself has changed.

    She said she couldn’t connect to being old. It did not feel real. But she admits, once a lot of ideas sparked and “now it’s not the same. (Herman) Melville wrote a letter to (Nathaniel) Hawthorne about needing to be in the green grass growing place where stories came from. My level of anxiety these days about the world, it doesn’t allow me to relax into that green grass anymore. No, it’s not the same.”

    Four years ago, her husband, Courtenay Wright — a renowned particle physicist who came to the University of Chicago decades earlier at the urging of Enrico Fermi — died; they had been together nearly 50 years and married more than 40. Soon after was the pandemic, and Paretsky was home alone for the first time in decades, in a large, quiet house.

    She chokes up talking about her husband.

    He had been her best reader and one of the few people she trusted to read early drafts. But it was an “uneven marriage,” she said. He took an enthusiastic interest in her career and “I was like ‘Oh, that’s nice, darling. Now go smash some more atoms.’ Beyond a vague level, I didn’t understand his work that much.” It was a home filled with Wright’s sons from an earlier marriage, a lot of electric guitars, TVs blaring and Wright working patiently despite the chaos, solving his math problems. Paretsky mourns all of that.

    Couple that with her politics, the abortion rights activism, the political moment — it’s a dark time. I emailed her the day Roe v. Wade was overturned, and she responded that all of her energy needed to go into that fight right now, so she would get back to me. Not that her writing doesn’t overlap with her politics. V.I. has wrestled with national security, segregation, gentrification, health care, outsider art, Nazi plunder, #MeToo, immigration, community action, the misuse of park land and Chicago police’s Homan Square station.

    When she started writing V.I. Warshawski, Paretsky wasn’t picturing a mere second-wave feminist response to Agatha Christie, but rather a female detective “who didn’t take (expletive) from anyone, a character who was closer to me and my friends in Chicago, who were the first generation of women to be in our professions in large numbers.” She took a class with the Chicago mystery writer Stuart M. Kaminsky, who urged her to adopt that authorial truism — write what you know. In her case, it was the white-collar business world. That is why, when Paretsky published her first novels in the early 1980s, their crimes tended to involve insurance scams — it’s what she knew. And from the start, critics were kind: “Not since crime fiction master Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett has a mystery writer integrated character and environment so seamlessly,” Chicago magazine wrote about her debut, “Indemnity Only.” She didn’t expect to stay with V.I. Warshawski but her agent asked for two more.

    Then more, and more.

    A following developed — one that eventually included Bill Clinton, a big fan. Paretsky said those V.I. initials just came to her. “I’m Jewish but my family came from Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Netherlands, England. I gave V.I. a Polish father (a cop), but an Italian mother because I wanted her to have warmth in her life.”

    Her timing was perfect, said Ann Christophersen, co-founder of Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville, which opened three years before Paretsky debuted. “It felt new, terrifically different at a moment when women were filling the roles they hadn’t yet. Here was a female detective with real urgency, and not afraid to get down in the mud.”

    Her books landed alongside a handful of other young female crime debuts with similar ideas, including Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller — and were soon joined by more.

    “The market skewed slightly to women and had been steady,” said Dominick Abel, “but for women, that meant the cozy mystery — quiet, character-driven, Agatha Christie, Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher’s ‘Murder, She Wrote’ books. Characters who had never had the (expletive) beaten out of them. Sara and the new female writers were tough broads.”

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