Detective V.I. Warshawski returns in "Hardball"

September 22, 2009 Sara Paretsky returns to her most beloved and popular character, V.I. Warshawski, for the first time in four years in HARDBALL (G.P. Putnam's Sons; September 22, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-399-15593-2; $26.95). With the deft skill that only a seasoned pro like Paretsky can deliver, the novel draws on the real events of the civil rights movement in 1960s Chicago as well as Paretsky's own personal experiences living in Chicago in 1966, not far from Dr. Martin Luther King.

The story begins with private detective V.I. Warshawski questioning one of the most vile and dangerous criminals she's ever had the displeasure of encountering: gang leader Johnny Merton. Merton may have information that Warshawski desperately needs if she is to solve her current case: finding Lamont Gadsden, a black man, and possible criminal, who disappeared in Chicago more than 40 years ago. Unsure of who Gadsden really was, V.I. is stonewalled by everyone she talks to—including Gadsden's mother, who hired the detective in the first place.

The case, which at first seems merely frustrating, turns into something much worse: an ugly, shocking look into a sordid chapter of Chicago police history—a chapter that may well involve V.I.'s late father. Tony Warshawski was a Chicago cop and, in his daughter's eyes, the best man she's every known. Tony Warshawski's been dead a long time, but in HARDBALL, V.I. learns this beloved father knew Lamont Gadsden. Tony may even have known what happened to him.

The mystery deepens even more with the arrival of Warshawski's much-younger cousin, Petra. Seemingly innocent, eager to please, and anxious to learn more about Warshawki's crime-fighting ways, Petra is also a mystery. Her work for a top Illinois politician brings her youthful exuberance and naiveté into full view, but it also may hide a deeper, darker secret. When Warshawski's office is ransacked and Petra subsequently disappears, Warshawski is in a race against time to determine whether Petra is friend or foe, accomplice or victim. And with serious doubts being raised about her father's past behavior and the current actions of her cousin, Warshawski will come to distrust everything and everyone she thinks she knows. Even if she survives, this case will change V.I.'s world forever.

HARDBALL will be in bookstores this week. Sara Paretsky will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble at Old Orchard Center in Skokie, 847-676-2230; at 3 p.m. Sept. 27 at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, 630-355-2665; at 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at Borders in Oak Brook, 630-574-0800, and at 6 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Newberry Library in Chicago, 312- 943-9090.

7:30 pm
Tuesday, September 22
Barnes and Noble
Old Orchard, Skokie

Additional appearances
Sept. 27 at 3 pm; Anderson's Bookshop, Naperville; 630-355-2665
Oct. 6 at 7 pm; Borders, Oak Brook; 630-574-0800
Oct. 13 at 6 pm; Newberry Library, Chicago; 312- 943-9090

About the Author

Sara Paretsky has written nearly 20 books, including 12 previous titles devoted to her popular private detective V.I. Warshawski. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas and received a Ph.D. in history and an MBA from the University of Chicago. She has won both a lifetime achievement award from the British Crime Writers, as well as the best novel award in 2004 for Blacklist.

Paretsky revolutionized the mystery world in 1982 when she introduced her detective V.I. Warshawski in Indemnity Only. By creating a female investigator who uses her wits as well as her fists, Paretsky challenged a genre in which women typically were either vamps or victims. Hailed by critics and readers, Indemnity Only was followed by twelve more best-selling Warshawski novels. The New York Times writes that Paretsky "always makes the top of the list when people talk about female operatives," while Publishers Weekly says, "Among today's PIs, nobody comes close to Warshawski."

Called "passionate" and "electrifying," V.I. reflects her creator's own passion for social justice. As a contributor to the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers, and a speaker at the Library of Congress and Oxford University, Paretsky is an impassioned advocate for those on society's margins. After chairing the school's first Commission on the Status of Women as a Kansas undergraduate, Paretsky worked as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side during the turbulent race riots of 1966. More recently, Paretsky served with then-state senator Obama on the board of Thresholds, which serves Chicago's mentally ill homeless. She has mentored teens in Chicago's most troubled schools, and works closely with literacy and reproductive rights groups.

Not only has Paretsky's own work broken barriers, she has also helped open doors for other women. In 1986 she created Sisters in Crime, a worldwide organization to support women crime writers, which earned her Ms. Magazine's 1987 Woman of the Year award. More accolades followed: the British Crime Writers awarded her the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement; Blacklist won the Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers for best novel of 2004, and she has received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from several different universities. The actress Kathleen Turner played V.I. Warshawski in the movie of that name and Paretsky's work is celebrated in Pamela Beere Briggs's documentary, Women of Mystery. Today Sara Paretsky's books are published in 30 countries.

She detailed her journey from Kansas farm-girl to New York Times bestseller in her 2007 memoir, Writing in an Age of Silence, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. In addition, Paretsky has written two highly-acclaimed stand-alone novels, Ghost Country, used in many seminary classrooms, and Bleeding Kansas, set in the part of rural Kansas where Paretsky grew up. She has published a collection of her own short stories, and edited four other anthologies, including, most recently, Sisters on the Case.

Like her fictional detective, Paretsky lives and dies with the Cubs, runs Chicago's lakefront with her golden retriever, and loves to sing, taking part in community musicals. Paretsky lives on Chicago's south side with her husband, a member of the University of Chicago's Fermi Institute.

For more information, visit her website and blog:

A Conversation with SARA PARETSKY Author of HARDBALL

HARDBALL centers around a march that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led in 1966 at Chicago's Marquette Park – why was this event important to you?

All during 1966, Chicago's Civil Rights groups staged marches and rallies, trying to force the city to undo its vile segregated housing and jobs policies. Martin Luther King moved into a south side tenement and that brought a national spotlight to the protests. The marches sparked riots all over town, including Marquette Park, near where I was a community organizer in a summer youth program. After "our" riot, my co-worker George Harris wrote a song with these lyrics:

I read about Little Rock, and also Birmingham They seemed so very far away, like in a foreign land But I saw those bottles flying out on Ashland Avenue And I'm mighty glad that I don't have to live next door to you.

We sang it to get through the shock of seeing the families we worked with taking part in a murderous rage, an eight-hour orgy of hate, directed against the Chicago police, against Dr. King and other African-Americans, and even against the Chicago Catholic church: the city's archbishop insisted that all priests read a letter advocating open housing. The church in my neighborhood, which usually had 2000 people at mass on Sundays, saw attendance drop to 200. Local thugs set fire to the rectory. George, our third co-worker Barbara, and I put it out.

Nonetheless, we three believed that if we brought enough energy to fighting racism and poverty we could end them forever. The next several decades were a sobering introduction to reality. Lately, despite the economic meltdown and other ills, I'm starting to feel optimistic again.

When I started work on HARDBALL I saw some of the same ardor for change in America's youth. Young people are volunteering for VISTA in record numbers, they're taking part in Teach/America. Watching our young people made me happy; it made me feel that our country was waking up from decades of "me-only" and searching again for social justice. And that, in turn, made me recall my own young days as a community organizer in Chicago.

This novel is a personal one for you, using some of your own life as inspiration for the larger narrative. What was it like to write HARDBALL and to be reliving that time?

When I worked on my 2007 memoir, Writing in an Age of Silence, I began to realize how important the summer of 1966 had been for me. It changed everything about me, from where I chose to live as an adult, to how I started thinking about stories and storytelling. I also saw how hard it was to label people. I lived with a family who had a differently-abled child, and they cared for without complaint and without assistance. The parents were blue-collar workers, one drove a bus and one worked in a bakery. I grew up in a kind of snobbish intellectual household. I realized that summer that my parents, who fought like Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, would never have had the emotional resources to care for my brothers or me if we'd needed such help.

That experience alone made me look at the world differently.

In HARDBALL, you also go deep into V.I. Warshawski's family history. What was it like to learn more of this character's back story now?

I've always envied V.I. her parents—they loved her so completely, even though both died when she was young. I never imagined that her father would have hidden secrets. Even when I started writing HARDBALL, I thought he was going to emerge squeaky clean. But as I got deeper into the story, and started to imagine the situation Tony Warshawski was working in, I realized no one could work with scumbags without compromising their own integrity. One Chicago cop who tried, in reality, to stand up to his bent pals got treated in shocking ways, and I didn't want to add that set of issues to the novel: V.I. would have known about it growing up. In HARDBALL, who her father was and how he behaved, are in some ways the heart of the mystery.

How fictional is the police brutality/torture that is depicted in HARDBALL?

A friend of mine who's a cop says he thinks people are drawn to police work for several "big" reasons. Many join because their fathers and grandfathers and uncles were all cops, and it's the extended family that they know. But among newbies, my friend says people are motivated either by a desire for service, or because they love the power that comes with the authority and the weapons.

A Chicago cop was murdered, shot in the head by a gang group, as I was writing this answer, and I don't want to minimize the danger they face or the hard work they do, and that most do well.

However, there is a notorious history of brutality and torture in the force as well. Dr. Robert Kirschner, sadly dead now, became one of the world's foremost authorities on torture: he performed autopsies in places as remote as El Salvador, Rwanda, Nigeria and the West Bank. But he first learned about torture as the Deputy Chief ME of Cook County, when he saw the bodies of people tortured into confessing to crimes: third-degree burns on their buttocks, from being chained to hot radiators. Electrical burns on their genitals and their ears.

Twenty years ago, Dr Kirschner tried to raise these issues with the Cook County State's Attorney, but no one wanted to know about it, and the police perpetrators were neither tried, nor censured. They have retired now on full pensions.

More recently, the police have been running robbery gangs in some parts of the city. I love Chicago and I hate for this kind of thing to be going on. But as a novelist, I wanted to explore the nuance of the behavior: how could a basically good and decent man, namely V.I's father, Tony Warshawski, get connected to this kind of heinous action, and how does it play out in his daughter's life?

Chicago politics are notoriously corrupt, yet our new President is a Chicago politician. What are your thoughts there?

Chicago, and Illinois, are exhaustingly and depressingly corrupt. In the forty years I've lived here, we've sent three governors to jail and are likely going to send a fourth. I could go on for days about the ways the aldermen, contractors, road people and Cook County's board use public funds for personal gain.

President Obama was definitely part of this world, but he knew how to maneuver in it without getting caught up in the financial skullduggery. Mr. Obama came to Chicago as a community organizer; maybe his work with people on the margins helped him keep an eye on more important goals. In the Realpolitik of Illinois, President Obama knew who he had to work with if he was going to get the legislation he cared about passed.

Despite supporting the president of the Cook County board—who's recently been in the news for putting an unskilled kid with a prison record for assault in charge of a public works project—and despite working out a property deal with one of Governor Blagojevich's jailed supporters, President Obama has never been part of Illinois and Chicago's notorious "pay to play" way of doing business.

Where did the character of Petra, Warshawski's cousin, come from?

I wrote fragments about Petra in different ways for about ten years before bringing her into V.I.'s life in HARDBALL. I realized all my previous incarnations of her made her into a junior V.I., while she needed, instead, to be a foil for V.I. She has to have the confidence, the energy, maybe even the exuberance that someone who grew up in a loving home in a privileged suburb would show. V.I. has scars on her elbows from having to fight for her place in the world; Petra's came to her as a matter of course.

I worked on Eugene McCarthy's campaign in 1968, and we were steamrolled by the kids who worked for Bobby when Bobby Kennedy jumped into the race. Petra, and her candidate, made me think both of Bobby, and Barack: both utterly committed to a charismatic, mediagenic candidate, and feeling a sense of entitlement about their candidate and themselves.

It's been 27 years since you introduced the world to V.I. Warshawski. Does she still surprise you as a character?

A couple of books ago, I realized I wasn't thinking through the distinctions between V.I. and me as clearly as I had done in the beginning. Oddly enough, it was alcohol that started me realizing that: as I've aged, I've become less able to drink. I have a fabulous collection of single malt whiskies—about a dozen different ones—but I very seldom drink whisky any more. Someone actually published an essay on V.I and her love of delicious Armagnac, and mourned her failure to drink it any more, and I realized that poor V.I, who goes into dark cellars and other slime-infested corners of Chicago on my behalf, was being forced into teetotallerdom. So I've tried to up her alcohol consumption in HARDBALL.

Does she still surprise me in other ways? In HARDBALL, she bursts out to her good friend and mentor, Lotty Herschel, that she always imagined herself with a child. V.I. —you should have told me when you were still 35!

How much influence has Warshawski had on the genre at large? By being a woman in this field, she was somewhat unique when she was introduced. Do you see her having a legacy now?

V.I was one of the first women professional investigators. There had been others, especially Marcia Muller's Sharon McComb, and Lillian O'Donnell's Norah Mulcahaney. V.I. served as a kind of signpost or turning point in the genre. She was not just a PI, working on her own, but unashamedly feminist in a way that resonated with many women. My first book was published in 1982, when women were first entering many professions in large numbers. We were often facing a lot of obstacles, for some women, even physical abuse in the workplace. V.I was both tough and vulnerable, and her character hit home with many readers.

I have had several extraordinary interactions with readers, including a 14 year-old with bone cancer, who used to take V.I with her to the hospital, because she felt V.I.'s toughness would get her through her medical ordeals. Perhaps V.I.'s legacy is support and reassurance for people who are afraid.

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