Cover image of "Overboard," a novel about a Chicago police scandal

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The HBO drama We Own This City has just concluded online as I write this review. The show is a deeply-researched portrayal of a federal investigation into a special unit in the Baltimore Police Department called the Gun Trace Task Force. The unit served for years as a front for blatant criminal behavior and unchecked brutality by police officers. In Overboard, the 22nd entry in the saga of private eye V. I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky paints a similar picture of a Chicago police scandal in the making—one that is also grounded in fact.

Nineteen years of police torture

As Vic Warshawski reflects, “The Chicago police unions had iron-clad defenses against any challenge to their acts, no matter how heinous. It had taken nineteen years of complaints to shut down a police torture ring, nineteen years of state’s attorneys and mayors turning a blind eye on the well-documented proof of what was happening in my old neighborhood. The end of the ring had not resulted in any sanctions against the cops involved—they’d all retired with full pensions. It also hadn’t ended the maltreatment of suspects in custody, just shifted the location.” And if you think those statements represent fiction, guess again. It all happened. And as the daily news makes clear, a Chicago police scandal might erupt again at any time. Just as it might in many other American cities.

Overboard (V. I. Warshawski #22) by Sara Paretsky (2022) 430 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of victims of Chicago police torture, a Chicago police scandal that dominated the news for months
Men identified as victims of police torture stand to be recognized by the City Council on May 6, 2015. Image: Charles Rex Arbogast – AP

A hero dog and a badly wounded teenage girl

Vic Warshawski has aged, but it’s hard to see that she’s feeling the effects in any way. She must be about 60 by now, since Paretsky has been aging her gradually through the years. But we frequently find her out running with her dogs, Mitch and Peppy. And it’s on one such run when Mitch suddenly breaks away and rushes barking down an embankment toward the rock-strewn shore of Lake Michigan.

There, as Vic soon discovers, Mitch has found what appears to be the body of a teenage girl nestled among the rocks and debris. But the girl is not dead despite severe burns on her legs and clothing. She’s merely drifting into unconsciousness. Before blacking out, the girl utters one word, which Vic believes is the Hungarian term for “grandma.” And the wounds on the girl, and that word, lead Vic into one of the most complex and life-threatening cases she’s ever taken on.

Not one case but three in this complicated story

Actually, it’s not one case but three. To learn the girl’s identity, why she appears to be hiding among the rocks on the shoreline, and who or what is “grandma.” To turn up the identity of the person in a bickering South Side family who has stolen what the inventor claims is a billion-dollar innovation in drone technology. And to catch the vandals who have defaced the South Side synagogue of a tiny congregation of East European Holocaust survivors.

Meanwhile, Vic must attempt to keep up her work for the paying clients who feed her and the dogs and keep the lights on. Somehow, as she pursues all the dangling clues, a brutal Chicago police lieutenant and his henchmen are trying to kill her. Oh, and all the while Vic tries to maintain her long-distance relationship with her current lover, an archaeologist who’s exploring Phoenician remains on the Spanish coast.

Is that complicated enough for you?

A novel with flaws

Overboard is not Paretsky’s best work. The story is as complex as it can get and will keep you guessing until close to the end. Unfortunately, it’s too complicated. Paretsky doesn’t quite pull off merging the three investigative tracks her heroine pursues in the story. They don’t mesh credibly. And her portrayal of Vic Warshawski is, as the book’s title seems to suggest, over the top. She comes across as a latter-day incarnation of Wonder Woman, taking physical abuse and pulling off stunts it’s unlikely a 60-year-old woman might manage.

As her archaeologist lover tells her, “I’ve known you to jump out of windows, or camp in the park disguised as a homeless woman, or plunge into the Pigeon River when the ice is breaking up.” But there’s worse in store for Vic in Overboard. Still, flaws aside, this novel is both readable and engaging. And the disturbing portrayal of misbehavior by Chicago police is eye-opening. I didn’t know it was so bad.

About the author

Photo of Sara Paretsky, author of this novel about a Chicago police scandal
Sara Paretsky. Image: The Tuesday Agency

Sara Paretsky published the first of her V. I. Warshawski novels in 1982, and additional titles have followed every one or two years since. There’s a total of 22 to date. She was born in 1947 and raised in Kansas, where she obtained an undergraduate degree from the state university. Paretsky also holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago. For nearly 50 years she was married to a professor of physics at the same university until his death in 2018. She has three children.

Before I opened this site in 2010, I read and enjoyed most of the novels in this series published to that date. But I’ve reviewed six more recent V. I. Warshawski novels. You can find those reviews by typing either her name or that of the author into the search box in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page. But for the twenty-second book in this series, see Pay Dirt (V. I. Warshawski finds the roots of a 21st-century crime in the Civil War).

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