Sara Paretsky’s newest mystery, Body Work (V.I. Warshawski Novel) , opens with a murder. Tough-as-nails private eye V. I. Warshawski, who will need no introduction to the fans who have followed her through thirteen previous novels, crouches over the body of a young woman, Nadia Gauman, who is bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. It’s a dramatic, and enigmatic, beginning. Warshawski tells the cops, when they arrive on the scene, that she knows nothing about Nadia except her name, and the reader is left wondering what brought the two women together.
It turns out that Nadia and V.I. have both been to see a performance artist at nearby Club Gouge, a pseudo-burlesque venue where V. I.’s niece works as a waitress. At this point, I rolled my eyes. Most of the time, when the plot of a popular novel turns on a work of art, the art is not very good. Or at least, it’s never convincingly described as good. This is an especially big problem when the plot demands that the characters find this work of art fascinating. A piece of art that doesn’t get you to suspend disbelief is as crippling to a novel as a flat character.
When Paretsky described the piece performed at Club Gouge, I was at first worried that I was right. The Body Artist, a woman with a fake name and a shady past, appears naked onstage and invites audience members to paint on her. For the most part, they paint smiley faces, signatures, and dirty jokes: it’s more like a party trick than performance art. The 1974 Marina Abramovic piece that this act was based on, Rhythm 0, was a lot more edgy. It involved more than just paint: spectators were invited to “use” an array of props, including a loaded gun, on the artist. The stakes were high enough to elevate an “act” to art. (Or at least, it made a discussion about whether or not the act was art worthwhile and interesting.) The Body Artist’s act wasn’t just derivative, it was diluted, and I was at first annoyed that the reader was being asked to take it seriously.
It took me a while to realize that Paretsky wasn’t asking anything of the sort. From the beginning, she has her characters engage—in a casual and unpretentious way—with the same issues of artistic merit that concerned me as a reader. A few characters call the act out as a high-minded strip show, another questions the originality of it all, and the protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, devotes some serious thought as to what would make the Body Artist desire to put on this sort of show. The attention focuses on decoding the symbols that Nadia—the only talented artist who participates in the act—has painted on the Body Artist’s back. (V. I. hopes that these will give clues about her murderer.) None of which, I might add, distracts from the main thrust of the narrative, but all of which diffused my annoyance with the Body Artist’s performance.
Reading Body Work, I felt like my sensibilities were being actively catered to: my objections parried, my annoyances soothed. Maybe Paretsky has learned from years of criticism coming from non-mystery-readers like myself. (Body Work is the fourteenth V.I. Warshawski novel—the first came out in 1987.) Or maybe she is a kindred spirit who gets annoyed when loose ends aren’t filled in. In any case, she didn’t make me wince once. And this is a book that touches on a lot of topics that can often make me wince. For instance, it turns out that Nadia’s death may be connected to a private security company that operates in Iraq. Paretsky avoids the shrill self-righteousness that comes so easily to us progressives, and allies Warshawski with two down-to-earth Iraq War vets who complicate the predictable evil-military-industrial-complex plotline. Paretsky’s characters inhabit a complex world that has room for shades of gray—and that sets her apart from other mystery authors I’ve read. Body Work is a good, satisfying read, and I will be watching the bookstore shelves for the next V.I. Warshawski mystery that comes out.
Nathalie Lagerfeld lives and writes in Chicago.