It’s summer, time for light reading, and I’ve been chewing my way through Sara Paretsky’s crime fiction at a steady pace. Her female detective V.I. Warshawski and I first met when I taught a university module on crime fiction and Paretsky was listed on the reading list for the “gender/feminism week”. I fell hopelessly in love with her and wanted to read every single page she appeared on.
These days there’s no shortage of crime fiction with female main characters or fiction written by women. Although that’s a good thing – we need more strong women and role models in this world – it also makes me wary. Pigeonholing good books into the gender box runs the risk of reducing those books to nothing but gender and alienating the very people who should be reading them, because they could use a bit of feminist chutzpah.
So here’s why you should be joining me and meet one of crime fiction’s most feisty detectives – at your own risk.
1. V.I. has a seriously cool name
V.I. doesn’t like her name and only uses her initials, much to the confusion of the many people she meets through her job. Another running gag is other people’s inability to remember her surname or pronounce it correctly. As someone who’s had the same experience all her life, this is something I can relate to.
2. She knows her history
V.I. likes to compare herself to other fictional detectives, though I’m not sure if she’s the type of meta-fictional character who’s aware that she’s nothing but words on paper. Apart from comparing herself to Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, she likes to wonder what Philip Marlowe would do in her situation, placing herself firmly within the noisy history of hardboiled crime fiction.
3. She’s a decent cook
Some detectives never seem to eat. Although V.I. skips meals regularly when she’s too busy chasing criminals, she likes to sit down for some decent grub whenever she can. I greatly appreciate her uninhibited descriptions of her considerable appetite, particularly her love for roast chicken, pancakes, and cornedbeef hash. I’ve never had cornedbeef hash but if I ever get to Chicago (where V.I. lives) it’ll be the first meal I eat.
4. She runs
Again, so do I. V.I. makes a conscious effort to keep fit and should therefore be an inspiration for us all. At the same time she acknowledges that getting off the couch can be a pain in the back. On several occasions her ability to fit regular running sessions in with her detective work has inspired me to get those running shoes on, so she’s a great motivator, without all the fitgirl nonsense.
5. She has awesome friends
V.I.’s friends include Mr Contreras, her elderly neighbour, who frequently joins her in her pursuits. Although he likes to meddle with her affairs, particularly when she tries to date men or gets engaged in particularly dangerous activities, he’s also her best friend and confidant. Other friends include a grumpy doctor, a ginger journalist, and a gargantuan female bar owner. What’s not to like?
6. She’s an actual human being (kind of)
Most fictional detectives are superhuman beings who never get tired, injured, or emotional. V.I. resembles an actual human and occasionally just can’t take it anymore. Whether she needs to be sewn back together after being beaten up or just collapse in a hot bath after a gruelling day, she’s not shy to admit that we all need a break from time to time.
7. She’s a kick-ass feminist
V.I. openly dislikes men who try to belittle her and won’t hesitate to use her martial arts skills against them. At the same time she supports women and will fight tooth and nail to combat gendered injustice. Of course literally kicking men in the balls isn’t the appropriate approach for most of us in most situations, but V.I. does demonstrate that mansplaining and catcalling don’t need to be tolerated.
8. She fights social evil
Unlike most crime writers, who appear to be involved in a who-can-include-the-most-gore-competition, Paretsky focuses on white collar crime. Sure, there’s violence in the V.I. books, but no detailed descriptions of mutilated corpses. Instead V.I. fights the injustice of a mob-dominated city where bankers and union leaders conspire with politicians to rob the poor. Harder to understand than yer average serial killer, perhaps, but also more thought-provoking.
9. She likes dogs
V.I. likes to grumble about her labrador Peppy, especially when she (the dog) gets herself pregnant and gives birth to a gorgeous litter of puppies. But at the end of the day, she loves dogs of all shapes and sizes and will do whatever it takes to protect them. As we all should.
10. She dates guys without feeling guilty about it
And throws coffee in her ex-husband’s face when he suggests that this makes her into a slut. Good girl. Paretsky never treats her readers to steamy sex scenes (and I don’t think the books really need them, to be honest) but she does offer a refreshing picture of a woman who controls her own sexuality without giving a toss about other people’s opinion.
If you’re still not convinced, you don’t need to spend a ton of money to give these books a try. I picked up a secondhand copy for a penny. Yes, a penny. Surely we can all skip our caramel coconut latte with soy cream and spend it on something to nourish our mind rather than our body. Go on then!