By Sara Paretsky
Hamish Hamilton 483 pp., $19.95
By Elmore Leonard
Penguin 265 pp., $14.95
Reviewed by Dave Riley
Norman Mailer said recently that women cannot write good fiction because they "don't have balls".
Don't look now, Mailer, but the gender walls that used to separate literary genres have all fallen to a feminist assault and you'd be hard pressed to find a male province where a set of testicles could put lead in its pencil and write in peace. Even the hard-livin', dame-hating gumshoes that are the stock-in-trade of crime fiction must now share the mean streets with a pack of women, all licensed to snoop and shoot like the boys. Word has it that V.I. Warshawski is the best of them.
After eight books V.I. is experiencing a mid-life crisis and may not be open for business in future. Sara Paretsky reckons that she will give her very feminist private eye a rest.
We'll miss her. While V.I. is inordinately keen on displaying her feminist credentials — to the point of being just too correct — she always manages to live out a fine read with enough thrills and mystery to bait each chapter. Tunnel Vision may be her last case but it holds your interest as V.I. once again tracks down the baddies who are conspiring to thieve and murder as the rest of Chicago goes about its business.
Paretsky has a good nose for stories about government corruption and corporate swindling, which inevitably turn out to be the same thing. She also delights in attacking femocrats who forget their roots in their climb out of sisterhood and into the bright lights to join the rich and famous.
Something of a secular moralist, Paretsky is keen for her creation to remain loyal to fundamentals generated in the early days of feminism's second wave. Normally dubbed "feisty" in bookchat land, V.I.'s major gender-neutral quality is undoubtedly true grit.
Paretsky may be reworking Girls' Own adventures into standard crime yarns, but her success in mastering the formula ensures that women writers can mark out their own territory even if they have to steal from the men to do it. If your present tipple is Sam Spade or Cliff Hardy, do yourself a favour and check out V.I. Warshawski.
Nonetheless, a feminist P.I. is unusual (perhaps no more extraordinary than her macho counterparts). It really is fantasy fiction where you can live out your dreams, street smart and always one step ahead of the opposition. Elmore Leonard, in contrast, opts for big dollops of reality.
Elmore Leonard novels have been coming out for years. There are more than 30 of them. They started out as westerns and now you could say they are about crime. But I think Leonard's books are about the people in them and the criminal element in the story is engineered to test the characters. Some go through purgatory to make it through to the back cover. Others — as is the way of it when shooting is involved — are simply blown away.
Accused of being the most amoral collection of characters in modern fiction, the lumpens, losers and ex-crims who inhabit Leonard's urban landscape carry out what seem to be good ideas at the time. Their actions, rather than being subjected to judgement, are performed without compunction. Murder and theft is the same as self-preservation and looking after number one. You'd be hard pressed to capture an idealised moment or one in which intense angst settles into abstract musings.
The personnel in these stories talk sharp and do their best with the neurones they have to hand. Violence, if and when it comes, goes with the territory.
For my money, Leonard's personnel, oftentimes mustered outside the law of the land, seem more real for all their dedication to themselves. In their attempt to act out their own self interest, devoid of character references, they ever so crudely perform their responsibilities for a life led under capitalism. First the money, then morality.
Like its predecessors, Pronto shoots straight from the lip as Harry Arno is forced into an early retirement from running a book in Miami. With his old associates on his tail his golden years aren't scheduled to last. But Harry, now in his 60s, isn't smart enough to survive alone on the run.
Fans who invest Harry with the attributes of his creator are in for a surprise. Leonard's crime-writing career crested during his 60s but it has not led him to treat his age group with empathy. After all his many crime stories Leonard seems to be writing the one narrative. But each time he publishes, he peoples it with different characters fated to act out their own logic. Pronto is no exception.