A treat from a sister in crime

July 3, 1991

By Rose McCann

Burn Marks
By Sara Paretsky
Virago, 1991. 340 pp. $12.95
Reviewed by Rose McCann

Great stuff. A new Sara Paretsky crime novel is always a real treat. In this, her sixth novel featuring gutsy Chicago private detective V.I. Warshawski (standing for Victoria Iphigenia, but "Vic" to her friends), Paretsky continues to hone her craft and earn her reputation as one of the best contemporary mystery novelists.

In a genre very largely male-dominated, this is in itself quite a remarkable achievement. Sara Paretsky was placed by Ms magazine among its 1987 Women of the Year.

She is a feminist from Chicago and participates actively in the National Abortion Rights Action League and Sisters in Crime, a women mystery writers' network which aims to promote a crime fiction that does not use sadistic violence against women as the main interest.

The network also campaigns against the discrimination women crime writers face. Despite the growing number of — female and in particular feminist, crime writers in the United States, critics largely ignore them, and they receive far fewer literary awards.

Paretsky's Warshawski series is definitely something different for the jaded thriller junkie and a universe away from something like American Psycho. Not only are her plots cleverly constructed, her characterisations sharp and her seedy urban environments faithfully rendered, but her stories are about high-level corporate crime and bureaucratic corruption, and her female operative is a spunky feminist.

V.I. Warshawski is the main reason I devour each new book as soon as I get hold of it from my local bookshop. Vic is not only a feminist but she has a critical point of view about US society in general. Her targets include the medical establishment, the police, politicians, big business and the Catholic Church.

Vic is single, heterosexual and in her 30s. Feminism is central to her character and the way she works and lives. She values independence, egalitarian relationships and solidarity with women.

She's a match both verbally and physically for the assorted macho creeps she meets in the course of her work and daily life. She's well able to defend herself because she keeps herself fit and has acquired karate-chopping and gun-handling skills. She never lets on that she is hurt, to her attackers at least, and she does not

indulge in self-pity.

Her toughness, fortunately, is more often verbal. She talks back to the cops, she is never at a loss for witty repartee, and she can rarely resist making outrageous statements to shock self-important racists and sexists.

She does not earn much and is always scratching to pay the bills. But that doesn't bother her too much. She's not materialistic. She does not need the incentive of money to take on a case that interests her. She will do it out of loyalty to family or friends, a liking for some people or political passion.

Vic shows that women can be unmarried and happy. She has affairs with men, one per book, but the men mostly prove either treacherous or, more mundanely, unsatisfactory because of their emotional limitations. Most of her lovers don't take her seriously as a detective and therefore never take her as a whole person, so she can not take them seriously.

But Vic doesn't fret over that much at all. She remains cool enough with the men in her life to view them objectively. She is happy, full of life and self-reliant. She likes her solitude, her privacy (when she can get it) because she finds it necessary to think, to plan and to reorient herself.

The main thing that keeps her sane is her friends, particularly her women friends. Vic's loyalties are definitely on the side of women. She can relate to them better than men and enjoys their company better than men's.

Above all, Vic cares. And her compassion is reserved for the casualties of a system based on hierarchy and oppression. For example, in Burn Marks, she helps the victims of a public housing arson case who are forced into the ranks of Chicago's homeless, because their building stood on a prime, inner-city development site.

Positive heroines have been sadly lacking, not only in crime literature but in literature in general. In order to raise their self-image, women need fictional characters they can admire; they need more good role models such as Paretsky's character provides. If you haven't discovered V.I. yet, you'd better get cracking. Burn Marks is a good place to start.

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