Book review: ‘Body Work: A V.I. Warshawski Novel’ by Sara Paretsky

Special to the Los Angeles Times

I’ve been following Sara Paretsky’s private investigator, V.I. Warshawski, since her first case in 1982 when, in life as well as fiction, female P.I.s were a novelty. Or, I should say, I’ve been trying to keep up as V.I., known to her friends as Vic, races around Chicago in her little Mustang at all hours of the day and night.

Victoria Iphigenia, daughter of an opera-loving Italian mother and a legendarily honest Chicago cop, is at once an over-grown, strutting, smart-mouthed tomboy and a sexy, emotionally vulnerable woman. She grew up on the gritty south side, but her cases invariably lead her to luxurious corner offices and the mansions of the arrogant rich on the North Shore. Paretsky’s plotting is always ingenious; even as there are coincidences and clues that only V.I. discerns, the subplots and main story always come together in a seamless, satisfying way.

Paretsky’s new novel, “Body Work,” begins in a seedy nightclub called Club Gouge, where a performer known only as the Body Artist offers her body for audience members to draw on. Vic is there only to keep tabs on her young cousin Petra, an impetuous child-woman, who is waiting tables there. When a young woman paints a floral pattern on the Artist, one of a group of Iraq war vets becomes enraged. Waving a black cloth in her face, he accuses her of taunting him and spying on him. When, a few nights later, this woman, Nadia Guaman, is shot to death outside the club, Vic is the first one at her side. Obviously, Chad, the angry vet, who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, did it. The police find him unconscious in his apartment, the murder weapon at his side.

His father, John Vishneski, hires Vic to investigate, believing his son was framed. She takes the case reluctantly because she too believes him guilty. Then, of course, complications ensue. A suave, well-dressed attorney named Rainier Cowles shows up at Nadia’s funeral and claims to be a friend and protector of the family. Why is he involved with a poor immigrant family? And why do the Guamans fly into rages at the mention of their first daughter, Alexandra, killed by a bomb in Iraq?

When Vic returns to the club, Cowles is in the audience, along with two other well-heeled types. There is a burly thug named Rodney who draws strings of letters and numbers on the Artist’s body, which Vic suspects is a code. The club’s owner, whose debts have mysteriously been cleared, is clearly afraid of him but claims he’s the Artist’s security guard. All of these characters are connected in a tortuous pattern, as yet only dimly intuited by Vic.

As usual, she is short on sleep and has little time to eat. Her grandfatherly downstairs neighbor, the endearing Mr. Contreras, worries about her. Her pleasures are running with her dogs along North Shore Drive, and finding a night here and there with her current boyfriend Jake, a musician. (Vic’s lovers rarely last more than two books.)

When Vic discovers that both Nadia and Chad’s laptops are missing, and that Chad was doped with a date-rape drug, she realizes that she’s stepped into a hornet’s nest: “Someone with a lot of organizational talent was running faster than me, cutting in ahead of me at every exit. I looked at my hands. ‘I am a street fighter,’ I said. Trouble was, I didn’t really believe it.” When she tries to convince her contacts on the police force that they arrested the wrong man, they brush her off as always. You’d think they would pay attention after 13 books in each of which she beats the police to the truth.

The case against Chad begins to unravel when Vic traces Rodney’s car to an accountant with a dingy office in the equally dilapidated headquarters of Ukrainian immigrant and suspected money-launderer Anton Kystarnik. There was an “Anton” in the club with Cowles. Going through Chad’s journal and magazines, she comes across an article about a manufacturer of body armor, recently acquired by one Jarvis McLean. There had been a “Mac” in the club with Cowles. The piece of fabric Chad had brandished at Nadia was part of his body armor … and that’s as far as this reviewer can take you.

“Body Work” is as fine a work as ever in the Warshawski canon. Vic’s character has unfolded and deepened over the years, and she’s 50 now. Let’s hope she still has a few good rough-and-tumble cases in her. I certainly don’t see her turning into an American version of Miss Marple.

Frase is a critic and reviewer.