Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is a mild-mannered, genteel lady who ferrets out crime by using her considerable wits. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski is nothing like that. Mild manners? Nope. As a matter of fact, Warshawski has a gritty personality that grinds on just about everyone she meets. Genteel? Uh, that would be a no. And while Warshawski certainly has brains, she's not above throwing a few good punches when the situation warrants.
Paretsky, who is in Houston to discuss and sign copies of her new book, Breakdown, in which Warshawski is faced with the ultimate terror -- a group of tween girls hellbent on meeting a vampire -- created Warshawski in response to namby-pamby women in detective fiction, like Miss Marple, the eternal virgin. "I don't know anyone like that," says Paretsky. "And I didn't like the way that women were defined by their sex lives. In books in the 1930s in England, women who were divorced were tainted and so were always going to be up to no good. In American crime fiction, it was even more melodramatic. A woman who had a sex life was just evil and a woman who was good was nonsexual. I thought, aw please."
"I'm not sure I would have ever started writing for publication if I hadn't had this need to create a woman character who could be a real person, a problem solver. I wanted to create someone who, like me and my friends, had sexual ups and downs but who still had a life beyond that." Enter V.I. Warshawski, a rough-and-tumble character Paretsky fashioned to be as realistic as possible.
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Besides her woman characters being as well-rounded and realistic as possible, many of Paretsky's characters are defined by a hunger for justice. That's a trait Paretsky says she came by honestly. "My father's parents met while walking on a picket line for the garment workers union in New York. On the other side of the family, my mother's father was the only doctor in a small town and he turned down a chance to go to the Mayo Clinic because he wouldn't leave the community unserved in the middle of the Depression."
As a young woman, Paretsky moved to Chicago in the 1960s and eventually earned her Ph.D. in American history because she wanted to understand the country's struggle for civil rights.
"I grew up in an atmosphere where you were expected to be alert and aware of what was happening on the margins and what you could do to change people's lives. That certainly influences how I think about my books."
Sara Paretsky reads from and signs copies of Breadown at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet. For information, visit www.murderbooks.com or call 713-524-8597. Free.