Is there a fictional private eye who is treated to a harder time than V. I. Warshawski? The witnesses she interviews are mostly hostile to the point of aggression, her life is constantly in danger, she’s been tortured and left for dead, blown up, set fire to, mugged, her apartments and office repeatedly ransacked, the people she loves put in mortal danger (and killed off sometimes), and for crying out loud, even her clients seem to detest her. Most books contain one serious hospitalisation, which makes me wonder whether the most implausible part of this series is that a self-employed detective would be able to afford medical insurance?
The real question that intrigued me, reading Hardball, one of the latest novels, is how this climate of hatred fits in with V. I.’s self-proclaimed feminism. I first read a Sara Paretsky novel when I was working at the bookstore in my early twenties and I remember being glued to it. This was hardboiled crime brought up to date, with a tough-talking, fearless woman carrying the narrative. This was the early nineties and sisters had been doing it for themselves for a while now; we were used to the likes of Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Emma Tennant doing their revisionist thing. Paretsky took the fascination with unusual female protagonists to a new level by creating a very realistic, very gritty setting for the kind of woman who seemed very real at the time, determined and courageous, principled, fierce, but worried too, about the way her independence seemed to come at the cost of orthodox female rewards – love, security, family. She jumped off the page at you, did V. I., partly because she was so bold and uncompromising, and partly because she refused ever to lower her voice.
And this was always somewhat problematic about the Warshawski novels; V. I. comes across so often as unlikeable. Strident is not the word. She is opinionated and stubborn, self-righteous and sometimes self-pitying, judgemental, unkind and reckless. She causes as much hostility as she naturally encounters because her only method of questioning is to needle and attack her suspects – and that’s before her hot temper gets the better of her. She is so bound up in her own concerns that she is entirely unable to summon the least empathy for others. In short, she is a bit of a nightmare.
Back in the 80s and early 90s, this could have been seen as a feminist act in itself; the celebration of a woman who refused to be sweet, charming and compliant. When women stepped into male roles it was understood back then that they needed to play the game on male terms. If V. I. had wheedled and seduced her way around her investigations she would soon have been drummed out of the sisterhood. Yet reading this latest novel in the new millennium, I couldn’t help but wonder: did V. I. need to be engulfed in violence, trauma and tragedy to assure the reader felt sympathy for her despite her flaws, or was that same violence and its consequences a kind of unconscious halo of anxiety around the woman who refuses to play nice?
Sara Paretsky is one of the few authors I read who consistently manages to make me feel completely engaged in a story whose main character teeters on the knife edge of infuriating. I do not admire V. I.’s methods one little bit, which makes me also wonder whether, when talking about the sympathy we have for characters, it is not so much their intrinsic likeability that counts as their ability to succeed in the life they are given. Highsmith’s Ripley, for instance, is detestable, and yet you read on with grudging admiration for the way he extricates himself from difficulty. With V. I. you have to spend a lot of time watching her dig holes for herself, and in Hardball there was many an occasion when I longed for her to find better strategies. What’s intriguing about Hardball is the fact that V. I. herself is forced to confront the damage her brittle reactions can cause and to wonder whether she can change. Is this then a reflection of a shift in current feminist ideology, one in which women get to use their femininity without being deemed manipulative or shameful? Could V. I. still call herself a feminist today if she became softer, gentler, more understanding? What behaviour must a woman adopt these days if she wishes to hang onto her membership card for the sisterhood?
For me, the real feminist agenda of the Warshawski novels arises from the kind of cases that V. I. tackles. The stories take her into the upper echelons of corporate and political affairs, worlds almost synonymous with crime and corruption in Chicago it seems. But essentially, they are worlds that have been dominated by patriarchal power and which continue, more or less, to be so today. In these spaces, V. I. and her finger-pointing, cage-rattling questions come across as an outrage against authority, and it’s no wonder she is always ending up in such danger. My favourite definition of feminism is that it concerns itself with relations to power, and V.I.’s demands for truth, fair play and integrity never fail to strike a formidable blow for justice – between those who abuse their access to power and those who suffer for it.
Paretsky’s ability to create stories with fierce political resonance is simply outstanding. Hardball, which takes V.I. back to an old cold case, the death of a civil rights activist during the riots of the late sixties, is no exception. So much crime fiction seems to be about nothing of consequence that this series comes as a refreshing relief. The ending was devastating in a gratifying way – yes, here was something that men would kill for. V. I.’s ferociousness ultimately seemed worthwhile.
But when it was all over, what was her reward? Well, she got the guy, the only decent man to bob his head up every now and then across 400 pages, and a balm to her fears that she is unloveable. And I’m really curious to know: is this a feminist act?