Sara Paretsky: Acclaimed Author Releases New V.I. Warshawski Mystery

Sara Paretsky recently released Pay Dirt (author photo by Steven Gross)

Novelist Sara Paretsky—who pushed the female-led detective novel forward with the introduction of her detective V.I. Warshawski in 1982’s Indemnity Only—was born in Ames, Iowa, and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. While most of Warshawski’s adventures are set in Chicago (where Paretsky has long lived), the newest, Pay Dirt, finds her in Lawrence, where one mysterious death points toward a host of secrets, conflicting motivations, and danger.

I met Paretsky in 2009 when she participated in an author series I was hosting in Cedar Rapids. We bantered about her Cubs and my Cardinals, and she charmed the audience and left a message for fellow mystery writer Lawrence Block on one of the posters she signed, because Block was coming later in the season. Her visit was a series highlight, and so I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview her about her long career, her most famous character, and her new book. Paretsky, who is 76, with a birthday coming up in June, answered questions via email.

I went back to the early books in the series to remind myself how V.I. Warshawski first arrived on the scene and what those first cases were. I was struck by your introduction to an anniversary edition of Indemnity Only in which you positioned Vic’s adventures as part of the noir tradition. Do you still think of yourself as working in noir—and if so, what are some key aspects of the genre that you include?

Noir is an elusive term. I think in its most classic sense, it refers to the kind of black and white films of the late 1940s, with a femme fatale who is trying to use her body to make good boys do bad things. In that sense, my work is in opposition to noir. However, I also think noir includes the whole hard-boiled detective genre. V.I. stands in that tradition with some notable changes, particularly the network of close friends who support her even while they are appalled by some of her choices.

I was also reminded of how much of your long-term supporting cast appears in that first book. When you were working on Indemnity Only or Deadlock or Killing Orders, how far ahead were you thinking? Did you set out to write a long series? Did you ever imagine writing about V.I. Warshawski for more than 40 years?

When I wrote the first book, I wasn’t even sure I had it in me to write an entire novel. I didn’t have a whole series planned. However, even in Indemnity Only, characters developed organically to support V.I. Lotty Herschel was the first and remains the most important. Sal Barthele, who owns the Golden Glow, came along then, too. If I had had more confidence in my voice, I would not have made V.I. an orphan, but that was a hard-boiled trope that I felt compelled to accept.

Reading about Vic using payphones and convincing Murray Ryerson to sneak something into a printed newspaper, as she did in the early novels, is, of course, a bit of a time warp. What have been the challenges of writing about these characters who aren’t necessarily aging in real time but who nevertheless need to come into the present?

That’s a question that I continue to struggle with. It’s important to me that V.I. continue to be physically vital, and while that’s certainly possible for many people as they age, it’s also just a fact that your energy levels diminish. In fact, the book I’m writing right now features a woman in her 70s who’s solving crimes while coping with the aging body. I know it’s anachronistic to have Lotty still in the OR, even though she did her medical training in the late 1940s, but I’m hoping readers will cut me slack for that.

Let’s jump ahead to the new book. As Pay Dirt opens, V.I. is in turmoil following a tragedy for which she blames herself. Given how brave and resolute she generally seems, it is quite difficult for the reader (this reader, at least) to see her struggling so much. How do you think about character development? More than 20 books into the series, how do you find ways to bring readers the badass detective they love while still making room for changes and growth and challenges?

I sometimes think of myself as a Grandma Moses of writing. I’ve never learned how to create distance between experience and text. Every book is a challenge and struggle for me, but Pay Dirt was exceptionally so. The themes of the book were suggested by my learning about the history of lynching of both African Americans and indigenous people in my home state of Kansas. That history is very painful. I was struggling also with some personal issues, and then in the middle of that, Dobbs [the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade] was handed down and I felt very bleak, indeed. There’s a way in which I never have any skin between me and the world, but it was harder with Pay Dirt. For that reason, I’m taking a break from V.I. with my current book so that both of us can heal and so that I can come back to her with a lighter heart.

One of the things I admire about these books is that you never shy away from issues of the day—whether it’s the excesses of capitalism or abortion or domestic violence or addiction or controversy over critical race theory. Vic is a woman of strong principles and opinions, but the stories never feel like morality tales to me. When you are thinking about a new Warshawski tale, do you start with a societal issue? The central mystery? V.I.’s ongoing arc? Some combination? And how do you find the right balance among all of these elements?

Thank you for that generous reaction—which stands in sharp contrast to some of the mail that I get.

Every book starts in a different place. Sometimes it is with an issue, as it was with Pay Dirt and the history of lynchings and property seizures. Sometimes it’s with a character. One of my personal favorites of my recent books is Dead Land, which was suggested by a homeless woman who lived under the railroad tracks in my neighborhood. She had been a concert pianist whose mental health deteriorated until she was finally living in this grievous condition. One of my pleasures in that book was writing songs for my fictitious musician to sing.

I know Chicago and rural Kansas are both important to you—and while most of V.I.’s adventures are set in the Windy City, Pay Dirt marks a return visit to Lawrence, Kansas, for the detective. Are there any craft or plot challenges that come with taking the city detective out of her city?

There are huge challenges to moving V.I. out of Chicago, most especially in Pay Dirt, where all of the action takes place in Kansas. She’s an outsider in a relatively small community and so she’s flying blind a lot of the time. The storyline deals with illegal property seizures a century and a half ago. I thought it would be easier to trace that history in a smaller, more rural setting. This would have been more difficult in Chicago, where buildings go up and are torn down and property changes hands in multiple ways that are hard to track. However, it would have been easier on V.I.

It is clear from Cady Perec’s return appearance—and from the offer of a free short story about her and her grandmother on your website—Pay Dirt is a backdoor pilot for more tales featuring the social studies teacher from Lawrence, Kansas. What appeals to you about Ms. Perec, and what should we expect next?

I moved from Kansas to Chicago in 1968, but for some reason in the last ten years my home state has been calling to me. I created a cast of characters for a non-series novel called Bleeding Kansas and they show up in different guises in both standalone stories and in the three V.I. novels that send her to Kansas (Fall Out, Dead Land, and Pay Dirt). It’s in the back of my mind to write a YA novel set in Kansas in the 1850s that would give the origin story to the Perecs and the other families. We’ll see if I live long enough and get the courage to make it happen.

As I’ve been reading my way through the series, I’ve been wondering what long-running mystery series you might recommend to an eager reader—after they are done with your novels, of course!

I love Richard Osman. I’m still a fan of the Golden Age writer Margery Allingham. Tracy Clark has a couple of series that I enjoy. I think Nevada Barr creates bone-chilling suspense. Val McDermid, Liza Cody, Ann Cleeves, and Denise Mina are brilliant in the U.K.

If you have never read one of Paretsky’s novels—or haven’t in quite some time—you can certainly jump into the series with her newest entry. Pay Dirt is twisty and satisfying, and V.I.’s doggedness drives the story forward. Still and all, if you’re new to Paretsky’s work, I’d recommend starting with Indemnity Only. Meeting V.I. Warshawski at the beginning of her adventures is fun and is the best way to understand the ways Paretsky changed the mystery genre for the better.