Review: Body Work by Sara Paretsky

In her fourteenth full-length outing Chicago private detective V. I. Warshawski (Vic to her friends) seems to take on half the city at one point or another. Our story begins when Vic and some friends attend the club that Vic’s niece Petra works at to see The Body Artist, a woman who appears naked on stage apart from a covering of paint. The images painted on to various parts of her body are projected onto a big screen accompanied by some commentary before audience members are invited to paint on her as well. As she returns to the club several times to keep an eye on her niece Vic becomes aware of some tension surrounding The Body Artist with one regular audience member painting strings of numbers across her bum and another woman repeatedly painting an image that causes a young ex-soldier in the audience to fly into a rage whenever he sees it. One evening the woman who painted that particular image, Nadia Guaman, is shot outside the club and dies in Vic’s arms and the next day the ex-soldier who had flown into a rage whenever she painted the picture, Chad Vishneski, is arrested for her murder after supposedly swallowing enough pills to put him in a coma. Vic is hired by Vishneski’s parents to prove their son’s innocence.

In keeping with today’s publishing trend for bigger books than 30 years ago Body Work is nearly 200 pages longer than my copy of the first in this series, Indemnity Only (1982), and I think this is a disservice to the modern book. It feels too long, especially at the beginning when the action is slow and circular, for example Vic goes to and from the club asking the same questions of the same non-responsive people several more times than was entertaining. And I’m not sure if it was a publisher’s demand for greater length or Paretsky’s own desire to incorporate multiple political and social themes but either way I think it would have been a better book with one or two fewer threads to juggle.

Whinge aside, the book is a decent one, tackling a host of troublesome issues like homophobia, the impact of America’s involvement in the Iraq war on its soldiers and their families and an exploration of who profits from war and how little they care about the people who have to be trodden on for them to do it. If you’ve ever come across Sara Paretsky’s work before you’ll know what side of the political fence she sits on but for the most part here she weaves her themes into the story rather than preaching at readers as she has done to the detriment of a couple of earlier novels. The technique of using a small, individual story to demonstrate a much larger picture was successful in making this primarily a novel about two families struggling with things largely beyond their control and the attempt to give them some measure of justice. What we learned about the war, its profiteers and the pointless destruction of human lives it has caused was a byproduct of the story, as it should always be in good fiction. Some of the other threads had a little less clarity about them and I found the ending far-fetched but overall it was a good story which kept me turning pages.

This book offered a lot more exposure to the old favourite characters than did its predecessor (2009’s Hardball) which would have kept the those long time fans who enjoy that familiarity happy. Vic is still relaxing at the same bar, trading information with the same journalist, completing the same exercise regime and sharing dogs with the same neighbour as she has done throughout the series (though surely Mr Contreras has aged at a fraction of the rate at which Vic herself has done?). Among the new characters emerging in the series is the twenty-something Petra who will turn lots of Paretsky’s older readers off as she’s a credible character but as annoying as heck with her lack of personal responsibility and constant whining. However Vic’s current love interest, classical musician Jake, seems like he might be able to deal with the strong, prone to danger woman that Vic is so that looks promising. And Vic is still very much the same character as always: a bit too mouthy but with a very practical approach to helping people in need. I think this is the quality I have always admired most about her and still enjoy reading about after all these years.

I have renewed admiration for the way Paretsky manages to straddle the balance between keeping old readers happy and drawing new ones in as, like the last book in the series, Body Work could easily be read by newcomers to the series without them feeling at a disadvantage. This is a rare skill indeed. When combined with an entertaining story that explores a host of political and social issues and a protagonist you can’t help but want to see succeed it’s a recommended read.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Body Work has been reviewed at A Certain Book, Reviewing the Evidence (Karla) and again at Reviewing the Evidence (Yvonne)

I have discussed two of the earlier V.I. Warshawski novels on the blog, Deadlock and Hardball

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 3.5/5
Author website
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [2010]
ISBN 9780340994115
Length 443 pages
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #14 in the V.I. Warshawski series
Source I borrowed it from the library

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11 Responses to Review: Body Work by Sara Paretsky

  1. kathy durkin says:

    I love V.I. Warshawski and her creator, Sara Paretsky. I just wrote a list of my top 15 authors and she’s in it. I’ve read all of the V.I. books, and her other novels. I like her ideas and her principled stances, her essays, her website. I respect her.. I can get absorbed in her books, and forget the world. (And I just read that she’s a dog lover, which I should have known from Peppy and Mitch, but that seals the deal.)
    You wrote a great review. I agree with it, with the substantive issues Paretsky is dealing with on the war, the war profiteers, the impact on families, tackling homophobia and also the sexism regarding attitudes of some at the club towards the women body artists. I also agree that a few less themes would have been helpful, honing in the focus a bit more.
    However–and this is my only quibble, actually of Paretsky’s writing in years–is that I thought the body art stuff was too far-fetched, not that I don’t appreciate all forms of art or performance art (all right, maybe I can’t go with all of it), but I thought some of it was a stretch. I didn’t care about some of the body artist characters, but I did care about the family hit by the war.
    I didn’t know if the body art was the best vehicle for discussing the war issues. It did strain my credibility, although I agree with her goals in this. I couldn’t wait to go back to reading about the war and other issues and get out of the body art–although she makes good points on this. It got confused for awhile. And since I like her books and V.I. (and everyone else in the books) so much, I want it all to be perfect.


  2. kathy durkin says:

    And, yes, I thought 100 pages shaved off would have helped the focus; 300 pages is a good number (give or take a few pages) for a mystery.


  3. Kathy I know what you mean when you like an author so much that you want everything to be perfect. I guess authors have to take risks with their writing at some points and the body artist thread was a risk for Paretsky – I thought that was the weakest part of the plot, especially how it all tied up at the end.


  4. Maxine says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful review, Bernadette. After reading all of this author’s earlier VI books, at first enjoying them but gradually finding them more and more leaden and one-note, I decided to stop reading after (I think it was) Fire Sale. I am not sure I’m convinced to change my mind by your review…..many of the themes seem to be ones the author has explored before, and one does feel slightly “bashed over the head” with her views, or at least I do, as if one could not have thought of some of these things for oneself beforehand. The new character (Petra) sounds a bit off-putting…..hmmm. Thanks again, your review is very helpful.


  5. Bernadette – Thanks for this review; as always, I appreciate your candor and detail. I like the Warshawski novels , too, although I agree with you that Paretsky’s gotten preachy in some of them. It’s good to hear that you don’t think she did so as much in this particular one. And of course, I like the Warshawski character, too. I wonder about the length of a lot of today’s books, as you do, and it doesn’t sound as though telling the story required 440 pages. Still, I may give this one a read..


  6. lemon123 says:

    I haven’t read Sara Paretsky. After reading your review here, I am tempted to try one of her mysteries. Hope to avoid the preachy ones.


  7. kathy durkin says:

    A further two cents: I like Paretsky’s views and principles, and out in the greater world, she speaks on freedom of speech issues, tightening of civil liberties in the U.S., and more–all important over here. I don’t mind her opinions being stated in her books; I like that. I just didn’t think the “body art” plot device was the best way to do it. It distracted from other important points. Maybe she could have toned that down, without using it as a major focus…Reading is subjective, and we all have different taste and likes and dislikes. That’s a good thing.


  8. Dorte H says:

    I was also put off years ago by the writer´s preaching – besides, our library stopped bying them after the first few – but I have considered trying one of the later works.
    Well, no rush really, I have a couple of books on my TBR I can read while I make up my mind 😉


  9. Barbara says:

    I *really* find Petra hard to take – she makes me feel murderous. I wouldn’t mind if she were bumped off. Jake can live, though.


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