Sara Paretsky is one of our great living crime fiction treasures. Having penned such taut mysteries as Deadlock, Indemnity Only, Burn Marks and (my favorite) Guardian Angel , she established herself as a star of the gumshoe set. Even a movie, V.I. Warshawski starring Kathleen Turner, was based on her novels. But it was roundly (and correctly) panned. Even Paretsky doesn't want to talk about it. It doesn't detract from her literary legacy.
However, just as Paretsky was riding high, she suddenly took a bizarre turn, infusing her novels with heavy themes of social injustice. The themes became more than background and readers felt they were being lectured. The Holocaust, the homeless, the prison system, enough! Where was plucky detective "Vic" Warshawsky when readers needed her, zooming around Chicago in a variety of beat-up cars, living on the edge of poverty, but still solving the case?
Paretsky tried magical realism (while lecturing readers about homelessness) with Ghost Country, an enormous flop, then was absorbed in self-analysis in the painful Bleeding Kansas, about her puritanical upbringing. Still no mysteries. Many figured another talent had been lost.
Hardball marked her triumphant return to the murder-and-mayhem business, and V.I. Warshawsky is back. The novel is a true return to style, yet it also allows her to delve into racial wrongs of the past without sermonizing. Paretsky, a transplant to Chicago, really delves into Chicago of the 1960s, when Dr. Martin Luther King, came to visit, and the "white ethnics," as they were called, started a riot at Marquette Park on the South Side. Without having lived through it, she presents an amazingly accurate picture of the times, with agonized lakefront liberals wringing their hands and trying to do right, while poorer whites worried about their jobs and being forced out of their neighborhoods.
V.I. is summoned by a dying relative to find the identity of a black kid who disappeared during those riots and must delve into some neighborhoods that — to this day — are no place for Caucasians to tread. Plucky Washawsky does anyway, and, as always, earns a lot of disfavor among the populace. Plus, she's also not getting any information. A jailed gangbanger just plays her for a fool, and her client's sister starts claiming that she's a fraud.
However, things start adding up quickly when Warshawksy opens a trunk once packed by her late father, a former Chicago cop. In it is a major-league-style baseball studded with nails — a lethal thing. What's it doing there? Her father played slow-pitch softball with the guys. Some contentious conversations with her prickly uncle leave her wondering if her father was completely in the right on the day of the Marquette Park riots, and for the first time she begins to doubt her hero father. After interviewing several retired cops who look to have gone crooked, she becomes more convinced that her dad wasn't all goodness and light.
Her father's possession of the hardball turns out to be much more than admission of his guilt, it's the key to corruption throughout the police department. Meant to be hurled at King's head, it killed a young girl instead. Now someone locked it up in Warshawsky's trunk to hide the whole sordid mess from view.
The social ramifications are highly resonant today, when police beatings of suspects often appear in newspaper reports. Hardball sheds light on a subject no one wants to look at but hides in ugly corners — probably in every city.
The plot is elegantly constructed, and, as always, the characters glow, especially the black South Siders, who slowly let Vic into their lives.
This one hits it out of the park.