Review: “Hard Time” by Sara Paretsky.
V.I. Warshawski, the female private investigator created by Sara Paretsky, is back, every bit as tough-talking, and justice-seeking as ever. In the book published after a four-year hiatus, Vic is also noticeably older, a tad more jaded and once again unavoidably broke.
Multimedia conglomerate, Global Entertainment, has purchased the Chicago Herald-Star, and nobody knows who will stay employed and how long. Reporter Murray Ryerson, V.I.Warshawski’s longtime friend, manages to reinvent himself as the host of a television show on Global’s network, featuring Lacey Dowell, the local Chicago girl of Hispanic origin ho has risen to Hollywood stardom. However, driving home from a party thrown for the occasion V.I. almost runs over a badly battered woman lying in the street in a Lacey Dowell t-shirt. Vic brakes hard and tries to help her, ruining her car in the process. The medics take the unconscious woman, called Nicola Aguinaldo, to a nearby hospital but she dies during the night.
The Good Samaritan act will drop V.I. squarely in the middle of a boiling intrigue. Next day some policemen visit her and try to blame her for the accident in a very persistent manner. Acting in self-defense, Warshawski has to dig hard into Nicola’s past. She discovers that the victim was a prison escapee from a private prison facility run by B.B. Balladine, the owner of Carnifice, the world’s largest providers of private security and prison services. Why did she wear a hugely popular t-shirt then? The case becomes even more interesting because Nicola, although an illegal alien, had been formerly employed as a nanny to Balladine’s children, and was in prison for stealing a necklace from his wife. Why did she make such a desperate move? Soon enough V.I. finds out that there is a connection between Balladine and Lacey Dowell’s employer, Global Studios mogul Ted Trent. In this case V.I. will be ahead of the game if only she gets out alive. It is a big “if”. After all the entertainment industry is a formidable enemy – even the closest friends might balk at supporting her in such a crusade.
I admit the book is a good read in the best Paretsky/V.I. tradition: the plot is fast and absorbing, including some unexpected twists and turns. The author apparently hasn’t lost her touch – the lead characters come across as very real especially because, contrary to many other mystery series, they age and must face that challenge. I also appreciate the fact that Paretsky doesn’t forget background characters from other parts. The prison scenes, although quite disturbing, are vivid and well drawn in my opinion.
Although Paretsky has allowed V.I. to age, she definitely hasn’t allowed her to mature. V.I still acts as if she had nothing to lose and then, facing the consequences, she becomes rather whinny. A little bit responsibility and listening to advice of Lotty, her mother substitute and a long-time friend, would do her some good. After all, like in the previous novels, nobody wanted her to do that job and nobody asked her to stay involved.
I hate to say it but I noticed that most of the Vic series books revolve around an ossified formula. The heroine remains relatively poor as she can’t keep enough of well-paying clients, yet she perseveres and in the end, like in some cheesy B class movies, everything turns out just fine – all of a sudden she ends up with a fat check from a grateful rich person, who is only peripherally involved in the story. Strange thing is the money vanish quickly in the next book, as if only a poor investigator would make a good investigator, leaving V.I. penniless again. Maybe it’s time for a change?
Finally, too many of the characters in this book seemed to be two-dimensional: either all good or all bad. They are also easy to distinguish. A tip: baddies can’t pronounce V.I.’s Polish surname. A bit spurious, taking into account the fact that Chicago is one of the biggest centers of Polish immigration in the USA.
I still liked the story but, unless the formula changes, I might think twice before reading the next installment.