Detective novelist and cultural commentator Sara Paretsky to speak Oct 27th

CEW welcomes author Sara Paretsky as the 2011 Mullin Welch speaker on Thursday, October 27th, 2011, at 5:30 at the Mendelssohn Theatre, Michigan League.
Paretsky is most famous for her 14 detective novels featuring V I Warshawski, a street smart Chicago private investigator. Fans around the world love V I, whom Paretsky describes as a natural for Chicago, combining grit and glamour. “She’s known for her silk shirts and Italian red shoes, but she is also famous for jumping into burning buildings, swamps and sanitary canals. She will not stop to count the costs if she believes in the cause she’s working on.”

Critics credit Paretsky and Warshawski with forever changing how women are portrayed in crime fiction. V I is neither a victim nor a vamp (a la Raymond Chandler). Instead, she’s a smart, tough, independent woman dedicated to solving problems inflicted upon society’s underdogs.

Not surprisingly, Sara Paretsky is equally committed to social justice. In a 2001 New York Times interview, Paretsky described herself as “a storyteller, an entertainer, but the stories that come to me are almost always those of voiceless people, not those of the powerful.”

Paretsky first discovered Chicago in the mid-1960’s, as a 19-year old doing community service on the city’s South Side. It was, she says, “a time of such passion and urgency in the city, and it got into my blood. ” She became a permanent Chicago resident in 1968.

The urban life she now lives is very different from Paretsky’s Midwestern upbringing. Born in Ames, Iowa, she describes her childhood in rural Kansas as “a time and place where we girls knew our inevitable destiny was marriage, where only bad girls had sex beforehand…. Home was a place where my value lay in housework and babysitting, not in an education.”

Her life began to change when Paretsky became a student at the University of Kansas. While earning a degree in political science, she also chaired UK’s first Commission on the Status of Women. Paretsky has gone on to complete both a PhD in history and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Today, in addition to her writing, Paretsky focuses on a number of social justice issues. She also mentors students in the city’s most troubled schools and is active with groups devoted to literacy and reproductive rights. 

CEW and Sara Paretsky’s many local fans look forward to an exciting, wide-ranging and provocative evening with the acclaimed author. We’re likely to hear about V I Warshawski and detective fiction, but we’re also sure to be inspired by a woman who has spent her life giving voice to ordinary people who “can’t speak for themselves, who feel powerless and voiceless in the larger world."

Body of Work: Paretsky’s Most Recent Novel

As a chronic reader of crime fiction, I sometimes ask myself “Do I read mysteries for the mystery? Or in order to learn more about interesting topics?” With Sara Paretsky’s books I don’t need to ask, because I know that I’ll get both. Paretsky’s latest mystery is Body Work, once again featuring her hard-boiled female detective VI Warshawski. It’s hard to believe that VI is now 50 (even though I’ve been reading her for years) but not at all hard to believe that once again she is taking on a case that forces the reader to consider specific issues of justice and social norms.

Body Work centers on two such themes, one fairly clear-cut and the other more nebulous. While VI investigates if and why an Iraq war veteran with PTSD has killed a performance artist, Paretsky weaves in commentary about the intermingling of military and corporate interests in the U.S. Those who paid close attention to the news during the Iraq wars and the current war in Afghanistan may find VI mighty slow in connecting the dots to unravel her mystery.

At the same time, however, Body Work tackles another social issue. The murder victim is a body artist who allowed strangers to paint her nude body. She, along with VI, niece Petra, and other women characters, challenge our understanding of how women’s bodies are claimed, described and owned by others in our American culture. Paretsky gives no easy answer to the question of how women can reclaim their bodies (both physically and metaphorically), but she does provide us with some provocative discussions in the course of her story.

If you’ve never read a VI Warshawski mystery, this is probably not the one to start with (unless you have a significant interest in PTSD and the military-industrial complex in the 21st century). For new Paretsky readers, I’d suggest one of her early books. But if, like me, you’ve known VI for many years, you’ll find lots to consider in this latest combination of story and journalistic revelations that addresses current issues for women and men alike.

– Jeanne Miller