Monday, March 8, 2010

Review of Hardball by Sara Paretsky

From Scotsman News --

Book review: Hardball --

21 February 2010 --

Hodder & Stoughton, 464pp, £12.99

THE thing about Sara Paretsky is, she's tough – not because she observes the bone-breaker conventions of the private-eye genre but because she doesn't flinch from examining old social injustices others might find too shameful (and too painful) to dig up.

In the dozen novels she's written about VI Warshawski, her stout-hearted but short-tempered Chicago private eye, Paretsky has questioned the memories of Holocaust victims, reopened wounds from the McCarthy era and repeatedly attacked the local political machine for its flagrant corruption.

Paretsky is in full Furies mode in Hardball, which reaches back to the tumultuous summer of 1966, when Martin Luther King led civil rights marches in Chicago and was met by race riots that cut through families and across generations, even spilling over into the churches. Warshawski, who was only ten at the time, assumes the burden of other people's memories when she agrees to help an old woman who hasn't seen her son since he disappeared during the January blizzard of 1967.

The son, Lamont Gadsden, was in a black street gang whose members saw the light and became Dr King's personal bodyguards, and he was at his side in Marquette Park when rioters killed one of King's followers. So the very white and very female private eye looking into the youth's disappearance finds herself ignored, insulted or attacked by every bent cop, crooked pol and angry political activist who'd like to keep his own shabby sins buried in the past.

Unlike many popular crime writers, Paretsky doesn't turn out books like some battery hen (the previous novel in this series was published in 2005), so it's a distinct pleasure to hear her unapologetically strident voice once again.

Her themes here may be familiar – Chicago's legacy of police brutality and political corruption is a never-ending source of material – but she gives them a personal spin by drawing on her own experiences as a community organiser during the summer of 1966 and sharing them with a large cast of voluble and opinionated characters, whose memories are as raw as her own.

There's a real sting both to the anger of a black man who took care of a friend beaten to insensibility by racist cops and to the grief of an elderly white woman who has been displaced from her family home. Voices like these can ring in your ears for – oh, 40 years and more.

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