Cover image of "Brush Back" by Sara Paretsky, a novel about big city corruption

Sara Paretsky writes for me. I’m convinced of it. Her consistently excellent series of V. I. Warshawski detective novels features a believable central character, a handful of her charming friends, and a finely tuned appreciation for the depths of big-city corruption in the place that invented its modern manifestation: Chicago. In contrast to the old whodunits that include roomsful of suspicious characters created just to confuse the reader, Paretsky’s plots are invariably complex and suspenseful rather than contrived. And they’re interesting: I care what happens.

Unlike the protagonists in so many contemporary detective novels, Paretsky’s alter ego, Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, is by no means a superhero. She is impulsive, sometimes foolishly so; she jumps to unwarranted conclusions; and she has a knack for sticking her head into places where it might easily be shot at (and sometimes is). She is, nonetheless, brilliant, and is sometimes referred to as “Chicago’s best investigator.” I may be in love with her.

Brush Back opens when Frank Guzzo, V.I.’s high school boyfriend from the old neighborhood in South Chicago, turns up in her office seeking help for his mother. V. I. is curious from the outset, since Frank’s mother has just been released from prison after twenty years for the murder of her daughter, Frank’s sister. He claims his mother was framed and wants V. I. to prove it. In short order, V. I. finds herself caught up in an exasperating and intensely personal fight when the old woman publicly claims that the murder was committed by V. I.’s much-revered cousin, the late Bernard “Boom-Boom” Warshawski, a legendary star on the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team.

Brush Back (V. I. Warshawski #19) by Sara Paretsky (2015) 475 pages ★★★★★ 

As the intrepid detective pursues the case in the face of a painful media storm, she comes up against the powers-that-be in her old neighborhood — and their connections to much higher places in the firmament of Chicago politics. In the midst of all this, the old woman keeps up a steady stream of invective about illicit sex, which she claims is at the heart of the murder case.

What I enjoy the most in the V. I. Warshawski series is the author’s sharp political eye. More than anything else, these novels spotlight the ugly underbelly of Chicago politics. As you’re aware, I’m sure, Chicago judges have been prosecuted for corruption by the dozen, and four of the last seven Illinois governors have gone to prison. Sara Paretsky understands how and why this happens: her novels prove it. She’s got her head screwed on straight, from my perspective: “When I think of immorality,” she writes, “I think of the payday loans and hidden bank fees, the failure to pay a living wage, the preference for crappy schools in poor neighborhoods. I don’t think about sex.”

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