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A call to activism

TWENTY-five years ago, an assertive, take-no-prisoners private investigator working the mean streets of Chicago arrived on the mystery scene, leading critics and readers to herald her creator as the newest heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. A seemingly common designation turned out to be groundbreaking because both Sara Paretsky and her creation, V.I. Warshawski, helped open the genre to other female writers who would, Paretsky hoped, extend her vision of politically passionate fiction that engages the reader.

But as Paretsky reveals in “Writing in an Age of Silence” (Verso: 138 pp., $22.95), a sometimes frustrating, occasionally brilliant part-memoir, part-call to arms, her “efforts to find a voice and ... help others on the margins find a voice” did not always work out as planned.

Her early optimism, which was squelched by a restrictive childhood but later found fruit within Chicago-based social action circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has all but faded away, she explains, in the face of a bombardment of sadism and misogyny, the withholding of civil liberties and the nation’s move from proud speech into near-deafening silence.

For such a slim volume, “Writing in an Age of Silence” is a tough read. It’s packed with anecdotes, ideas and barely suppressed outrage, but its haphazard structure distracts from the author’s message. Some may wish to assure Paretsky that her idealism can return despite the current administration’s actions, while others may chastise her for hanging on to her ‘60s-based ideals or her guilt about writing when she could be out protesting.

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But Paretsky’s concerns, especially in the searing final chapter, bring to mind Mike Judge’s recent movie “Idiocracy”: that if we don’t act soon for change, we will end up with the cruel world we deserve.

-- Sarah Weinman


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