The Sunday Salon: Old School

SAMSUNGWith all the enticing new books being published all the time, it's easy to forget some of the great stories that have been around for years - or even decades. I was reminded of that earlier this week when a trip to the library netted me a couple oldie-but-goodie paperbacks, and got me hooked on an entire series that will keep me entertained throughout the winter. Sara Paretsky's series of mysteries featuring hard-nosed, Chicago female private investigator V. I. (for Victoria Iphegenia) Warshawski had completely escaped my attention until I read a great little book called Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading. In it, Maureen Corrigan, NPR Book Editor, wrote about some of the books that have meant the most to her during her reading life, and Paretsky's series was among them. The first book, Indemnity Only, published in 1982, introduces the fast talking, smart mouthed V.I. - or "Vic" as we soon learn to call her. Written in that inimitable Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett style, with short clipped sentences and atmospheric descriptions, Paretsky quickly grabs the readers attention and pulls you right into the story.

Here's what Maureen Corrigan and I both love about Vic - she's completely her own boss, she's fearless, she says whatever she means and makes no apologies. But she still enjoys soaking in a hot bath at the end of a long day, with candles glowing and Italian opera on the radio. She takes her steak rare and her Scotch neat, promising herself an extra hour of running in the morning to prevent the pounds from creeping up. Without batting an eye, she takes on the mostly male establishments in banking, politics, labor unions, and the police force, and makes them accountable, her sharp wit and ever sharper tongue her most powerful weapons.

Vic's character is as complex as the mysteries she trying to solve, and in some ways her story is more engaging than the plot. She began her career as a Public Defender, but left because she got tired of following political rules. On page 13 of Indemnity Only, we get a interesting glimpse into her formative past.

I put on jeans and a yellow cotton top and surveyed myself in the mirror with critical approval. I look my best in the summer. I inherited my Italian mother's olive coloring, and tan beautifully. I grinned at myself. I could hear her saying, "Yes, Vic, you are pretty - but pretty is no good. Any girl can be pretty - but to take care of yourself you must have brains. And you must have a job. A profession. You must work." She had hoped I would be a singer and had trained me patiently; she certainly wouldn't have liked my being a detective. Nor would my father. He's been a policeman himself. Polish in an Irish world. He's never made it beyond sergeant, due partly to lack of ambition, but also I was sure, to his ancestry. But he'd expected great things of me...My grin went a little sour in the mirror and I turned away abruptly.

Clearly Vic feels herself to have fallen short of parental expectation, and it's poignant to see how this tough, self-confident woman can fall prey to the same emotional traps the rest of us women do.

Of course the best thing about discovering a series like this is that I'm guaranteed reading material for quite some time. Paretsky has published 14 more V.I. Warshawski novels, a good many of which I snagged at the library book sale last Saturday for 50 cents each.

So I'll be spending a lot more time with Vic this winter. I couldn't be in better company, either.

How about you? Have you ever stumbled across a book or series of books that have been around for a long time but somehow escaped your radar?