Crime Fiction Alphabet: D is for Deadlock

My entry this week in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is Sara Paretsky’s Deadlock. The second in what has recently become a 13-book series, Deadlock was published in 1984 and features one of the earliest hard-edged female private eyes in crime fiction: VI Warshawski. The plot displays many of the features the series is known for including the involvement of VI’s friends or family and lots of under cover work as VI investigates the murder of her cousin Boom Boom, an ex hockey player. Boom Boom is assumed to have drowned by accident in Lake Michigan but VI thinks differently and investigates his new employer, a large grain company, only to discover corruption on a grand scale. The book features blackmail, sabotage and men doing nasty things and there’s no one but VI to stop them. In this interview Paretsky says the novel was written for her husband Courtenay Wright who is an ex naval officer, which possibly explains how all the shipping details were so spot on.

The plotting is complex but tight which makes the book a genuine page turner. It is also one of those books where when you work out the clever double meaning of the title you smack your head Homer Simpson style.

This series was one of the first I started reading as a late teenager when I deliberately sought out books in which the women did more than either wait patiently for their men to come home or hop into bed with any bloke that asked. For that reason I really enjoyed VI who was starting out in her own business after a short-lived career in the public defender’s office and, although she had a healthy sex-life, didn’t behave as if a man was the answer to all her prayers. Other traits I enjoyed were that VI never responded appropriately to ‘authority’ (yes mum I particularly identified with that one) and drank Johnnie Walker black label scotch at the same time as being an opera buff and staunchly loyal to her friends. These contradictions in her personality made her seem very realistic to me and also led to unpredictable twists and turns in the books as she didn’t always behave as you might expect.

The other standout feature of Paretsky’s novels, including this one, is the depiction of Chicago. One Christmas I visited my brother and sister-in-law who’d been living in that city for a year and they were both astonished at how much of the city I could recognise or quickly get the hang of and I owe it all to my many re-readings of these books. Despite a windy, wintry cold the depth of which I’d never experienced before, I loved doing my very own VI tour and it’s still one of my favourite places to visit.

I used to wait with breathless anticipation for each new book in this series but I’ve become a bit disillusioned of late. Although it’s been four years since the last book in the series was published I haven’t rushed to get my hands on this year’s release: Hardball. The last several books have, for me, seen too much of Paretsky’s own politics bleed into the narrative and I got tired of being lectured at about the evils of big business, racism and whatever other rant Paretsky felt like making. VI had always had a social conscience but in the later books the social themes seem to have taken over the stories and, as always, this makes me cranky. I’ve no quibble with authors wearing their political hearts on their sleeves but only if they do it naturally, through their characters’ actions. Still, for old time’s sake I will be reading Hardball eventually.

My crime fiction alphabet so far

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15 Responses to Crime Fiction Alphabet: D is for Deadlock

  1. Kerrie says:

    I used to read a lot of Paretsky too Bernadette, but I haven’t read anything since FIRE SALE although I do have one unread on the shelves (I think)

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  2. Norm/Uriah says:

    I totally agree with your last paragraph Bernadette. I stopped reading this series after Black List which appeared to be one long lecture on the evils of the Patriot Act, profiling and George W Bush.
    I think most people have worked out that George W is not going to be rated up there with Washington, Lincoln, Teddy and FDR but Sara wanted to make sure we didn’t get it wrong and bashed the reader with her message on every other page.

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  3. Bernadette – You really make a well-taken point that Warshawski’s character’s complexity makes her all the more interesting. It’s hard to fit her into a particular “type,” and that just adds to her appeal.

    I second what Norman says about the past part of your post,too. The core of a good mystery is the plot and the characters. If anything – including the author’s political agenda – takes away from that, it lessens the book.

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  4. Beth F says:

    I read one book by Paretsky, but not this series. The social issues have me curious! But I agree that the political lecture shouldn’t take away from the general mystery. So far the Julia Spenser-Fleming books seem to have the right the balance.

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  5. Maxine says:

    Oh, this is all so true. I loved this series at the start, I so identified with the main character and her mentor (an older woman), and I just loved the descriptions of Chicago and the lake and the grand houses full of corruption, and all of that. I really looked forward to each. But then they seemed to get so bogged down partly in politics and partly in VI’s relationship with that private detective who disappeared and reappeared or something like that? And I agree, that one that was a political polemic where VI coaches a basketball team at a girls’ school – that was the last one I read. I nobly struggled to the end but I was so disappointed.

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  6. Interesting comments. When Blacklist was first published, I got a ton of hate mail accusing me of loving terrorists, hating America and being a traitor for questioning the Patriot Act. A lot changes in 6 years, I guess.

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  7. Maxine says:

    I wonder if Michael Connelly got the same? He wrote a book criticising this act immediately in its aftermath, long before it became acceptable (if it ever did), questioning the effects on personal liberties. I thought he was brave to write on this so quickly, in America.

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  8. I haven’t read any of Sarah Paretsky’s books yet, but have been meaning to for a while, since I’ve heard so many good things about her writing. It’s interesting to read some truncated praise here, from people who’s opinions I respect.

    HARDBALL is in my “to be reviewed” pile, and I am looking forward to it. It will be interesting to see if Paretsky becomes a ‘read everything they’ve written’ author for me or not.

    I can understand the comments – I think it’s fine for whatever issues to come through in a book (or film etc), but they need to do so naturally, rather than seeming like they were the driving force of the story.

    I actually really enjoyed the Connelly book you’re talking about Maxine. I think he brings in some of those such social etc issues well, flavouring the story without being the sole reason for the story, so to speak.

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  9. I am not read any book by Paretsky . I think I ought to check her out. Your post has intrigued me.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: D post!

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  10. dogfish says:

    “I’ve no quibble with authors wearing their political hearts on their sleeves but only if they do it naturally, through their characters’ actions.”

    then you should check out a book called Let Slip the Dogs of Love (Suburban Legends of the Living and the Dead), by Eugene Kachmarsky. exactly what you’re talking about and contains crime fiction, too.

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  11. bernadetteinoz says:

    Thanks everyone for stopping by, especially Sara as it’s always nice to see an author engaging with their readers. I never disagreed with the substance of the politics in the books (and would never have sent hate mail even if I had), I just prefer not to have any political agenda, even one I agree with, take centre stage in my fiction. I’ve made this same argument with respect to other books such as James Lee Burke’s THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN which was set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although I shared many of the author’s sentiments I thought he let the politics take over the narrative which turned from a story into a treatise on bad government. There are news magazines and op ed pieces for that kind of thing, fiction should stick to story telling (for me).

    And thanks dogfish – I’ll check it out

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