‘Breakdown’ review: V.I. Warshawski on the case again

Tribune Newspapers

One of the many pleasures of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels is that the sharp-tongued, short-tempered detective often seems to be following clues that lead not just to the heart of whatever mystery is at hand, but also into the red-hot center of the zeitgeist itself.

Recent books have dealt with the trauma of the Iraq War and the dangers of the Patriot Act. In the 1980s, when V.I. burst onto the scene as one of publishing’s first “hard-boiled” female detectives, the plots were spun of the concerns of those times, from corporate malfeasance to labor racketeering.

And now, as the presidential campaign heats up, her latest venture, “Breakdown,” features a Michele Bachmann-esque character running for Senate, a bloviating yet powerful conservative talk-show host, anti-immigrant hysteria and, because Paretsky also has a sense of humor, a “Twilight"-like young adult horror novel penned by the delightfully-named Boadicea Jones.

The book opens with V.I. in a dark cemetery, rain pelting her evening gown, looking for a group of girls obsessed with books about supernatural shape shifters. Before the first chapter is over, a man has been stabbed through the heart, vampire-style, in a nearby tomb.


The corpse is revealed to be a down-market private detective with an unsavory habit of illegally tapping people’s phones. But who killed him? Paretsky’s story poses plenty of questions: Why is Chaim Salanter, the billionaire grandfather of one of the girls in the book club, trying to pay off V.I. to stop investigating the case? And what does it have to do with the talk-show host who devotes so much air time to pillorying Salanter?

As V.I. puts it, in a slightly different context: “My head was spinning like the ride at the street fair.”

These questions lead V.I. to the locked ward of a state mental hospital, which, it turns out, is the source of mysterious interest for lots of powerful people.

As V.I. continues to investigate, zipping around in her car in the oppressive Chicago heat, she is guided by the pencil-scrawled ravings of a brilliant, mentally disturbed friend, who is in a coma after a fall that may or may not be connected to the dead man. V.I.'s ex-husband, a successful corporate lawyer, turns out to be peripherally involved too.

Paretsky, in a recent interview, told the Miami Herald that her books are “like a suitcase that someone tried to put too many clothes in, and there’s a bra strap sticking outside.”

In lesser hands, the sheer number of coincidences and connections that fuel the plot of “Breakdown” might be a problem. But the story moves so quickly you don’t really have time to object. And you don’t really want to, because the dialogue is sharp, the satire of politics and media institutions downright biting, and the descriptions hilarious. Of one character’s living room, Paretsky writes that it was “so stuffed with old furniture it looked like a showroom to a down-market antiques store.”

“Breakdown,” too, is stuffed with plot twists and characters — but thanks to V.I. and a supporting cast of her delightful friends (including her brusque neighbor Mr. Contreras and her wonderful dogs), the story won’t disappoint her fans.