27 Jun 2013

Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski (aka V.I.), a character by Sara Paretsky

To start with, a bio quote to set some of the background story behind this latest Paretsky crime novel, Breakdown, that I just found so hard to put down.

"Before there was Lisbeth Salander or Stephanie Plum, there was V I Warshawski. Sara Paretsky revolutionized the mystery world in 1982 when she introduced V.I. in Indemnity Only. By creating a believable investigator with the grit and the smarts to tackle problems on the mean streets, Paretsky challenged a genre in which women typically were either vamps or victims. Hailed by critics and readers, Indemnity Only was followed by fifteen (now actually 16 and soon 17) 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.”

As far as I know, Warshawski has been on film just once, with Kathleen Turner (above) as the actress. To me the actress playing V.I. should definitely have dark hair, not died blonde. But who knows what goes on in the minds of Hollywood producers? This lady below (I think she is a French actress but I cannot remember) is more the image I have of the young Victoria Warshawski.

Anyway I have just finished what I think must be about the number sixteen in the Warshawski series of "crime" novels by Sara Paretsky, and our heroine is now going on 50. I have been a fan for some years and have read most of the previous books. In fact I hadn't seen one for years and was afraid the author had let her die or something. Breakdown is one of the longest, best and most intricate of the lot. It also digs deeper into the various ramifications and themes that Paretsky has drawn upon as ressources and inspirations for the previous novels featuring the totally likeable, tenacious and tough lady private eye from Chicago named, interestingly, Victoria Iphegenia Warshawski.

I don't make a habit of relating plots in my articles on books, and I am not about to make an exception here. It would only spoil the story for anyone out there encouraged to go out and get a copy of the book in question, and, when I see this way of "filling" an article used by book critics, I rarely find that it adds much to the interest of the article. The plot and suspense of Breakdown is intricate, as I said, and includes themes like the Holocaust and its incidence on people's lives, then and afterwards, immigration to the USA, dishonest and demagogic politicians and TV barons (plenty of them around!), and ways of corrupting and frightening people when money and/or power is at stake. Anf, of course, crime of various sorts.

Sara Paretsky when she began the Warsahwski series, in front of a house that was the inspiration for the detective's childhood home.

So the mainstay of Paretsky's novels is a female private eye called V.I. Warshawksi, whom she made to grow up in the rough part of Chicago. Her father, of Polish origin, was a policeman and her mother, who came from Italy, a very good singer. V.I. studied law and has been, for many years, a private investigator. Her style and guts are, as with many private eyes, part of her attraction as a character, but Paretsky's books are not just about style and off-the-cuff smart talk, although Warshawski can do both very well. There is also the defending the weak and poor, and, as a female investigator, showing nasty men that women are not to be underestimated in any field. So we have social, political and economical angles mingling with the suspense all through most of the novels featuring V.I, Warshawski. 

Victoria Iphegenia was given her second name by her mother through her passion for opera, and her love of and respect for of her now dead parents add yet another dimension to her already complex personality. Are there men in her life ? yes, but they come and go with some gaps and rarely play any major part in the novels. And sex is in a ùminor key, suggested by never described, and lokned always to her love of the moment. In Breakdown she is with a classical musician who is younger than herself, as Warsahwski is now aged 50 and, although still very fit, is not afraid to mention her age as part of the background. Outside of her love life, Victoria's friendships tend to be lasting. And the city of Chicago is a constant feature. Probably one of the traits of Paretsky's own life that gets into her character's is dogs (see below). Warshawski has two golden retrievers  and they regularly feature, their outings to the lake and being looked after by V.I.'s neighbour Mr Contreras regularly punctuating the hotter action and investigations.

the author, Sara Paretsky, with dog and Breakdown, her latest book

Why do I like V.I. so much? Well, all of the above really. Plus she is instinctive, using reasoning to back up and fathom her hunches. And she is funny: an essential quality in any person.

Read on .....


  1. Still like your comments very much, David, but you failed to tease me into reading the book this time. Never had any interest in “roman policier” in my life, with two notable exceptions: Agatha Christie’s and Jef Geeraerts’. But, in the former it is the very British atmosphere I go for (and Harrogate, and Scarborough ...) and in the latter, all that is so “Antwerps” about him.
    Still, I might suggest an enigma to be solved: which pharmacist is going to win the Tour de France this year ? And will the first who speaks the truth be killed by the doping mafia?

  2. Luc, I think you would like this lady, but this is America, ie a melting-pot, and so you have touches of various parts Europe, seen through the looking glass.

    As to your Tour de France enigma, maybe they should just create a "best chemist" prize with a jersey in fuorescent green with pink spots for the winning chemist.