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Blacklist: A V.I. Warshawski Novel    by Sara Paretsky order for
by Sara Paretsky
Order:  USA  Can
Putnam, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio, CD
* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Chicago private detective V.I. Warshawski is as feisty and independent as always in this 12th in the Sara Paretsky mystery series. Along with Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, Paretsky is one of the pioneers who created the strong female protagonist mystery genre more than twenty years ago. Probably more than any other writer in this sub-genre, Paretsky has always incorporated social issues in her writing, from homelessness to the lingering effects of the Holocaust on survivors. Blacklist focuses both on the McCarthy era blacklisting of suspected Communist sympathizers in the early 1950s and the frighteningly similar impact of the recent U. S. Patriot Act on individual civil rights and personal liberties.

V.I. is asked by her principal client, Darraugh Graham, to investigate his elderly mother's sightings of mysterious night time activities on the old family estate across the road from the retirement complex where she now lives. Though it sounds simple, when V.I. starts exploring the site she finds the dead body of young well-regarded Africa-American journalist, Marcus Whitby. The lazy, and possibly racist, local suburban police try to foist this off as a suicide, but V.I.'s suspicions are raised when she runs into the teenage grand-daughter (Catherine) of the prominent Bayard Publishing family. The family patriach, Calvin Bayard, was been one of V.I.'s heroes since he refused to reveal names to the Red-baiting House Unamerican Activities Committee back in the 1950s.

As the plot develops, all kinds of links appear amongst the Bayard and Graham families and the murder victim. The latter was researching an African-American female dancer/scholar of the 1950s, who lost her teaching position after being blacklisted. In a modern parallel, Catherine is fighting government conservatives once again by hiding at her private school a hapless young Arab-American dishwasher, accused of being a terrorist. Staunchly liberal V.I. is incensed at the new attitude in the U.S. where 'fear is holding the horse's reins', many are acting as if 'the Bill of Rights doesn't matter any more', and there is 'jubilant trampling of human rights' by 'right-wing radicals'. This well-meant fervor makes V.I. a more passionate character than the often more superficial mystery protagonists. But it also causes the book to drag and become excessively long.

In addition, Paretsky spends more time on the social issues and less on good character delineation, so it is sometimes hard to tell the main characters apart. Of course, this can always be difficult when the plot is so complex, but it is possible - just read recent books by P.D. James and Elizabeth George. All in all, while it is always nice to spend time with the fiercely independent V.I. (who has not slowed down at all with age), one wishes that Paretsky would stick to the more streamlined and targeted adventures of V.I.'s earlier days.

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