Created by Sara Paretsky
“Never tell anybody anything unless you’re going to get something better in return.”
— V.I. Warshawski in Deadlock
“Like Lew Archer before her, (V.I.) looks beyond the surface to ‘the farside of the dollar,’ the side where power and money corrupt people into making criminal decisions to preserve their positions.”
— Parestky on V.I.
Along with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, with whom she’ll probably always be linked (and Lord, how it must annoy both authors), one of the best known of the tsunami of lady dicks who popped up in the late seventies/early eighties was V.I. WARSHAWSKI, a Chicago private eye specializing in corporate skullduggery.
V.I. is very proud of her Italian-Polish roots and her working class background, and seems to take particular delight in going after fat cats. She’s got an office in the Loop, complete with the El rattling past every few minutes.
And while she may be a slender, 5’8” but V.I. can certainly take care of herself, thanks. No waiting to be rescued here — she packs a gun in her purse, and she’ll use it if she has to. She’ll duke it up if necessary, and she doesn’t take any bullshit — especially from men. She’s idealistic, and many of her cases revolve around “women’s issues,” but she’s not just some rhetoric-spouting feminist. She lives in the real world and that’s the way she wants it. She drinks Johnnie Walker Black Label, is more than willing to bend the rules for her clients (she seems particularly partial to B&E), but she’s also a bit of a clothes horse, likes to sing along with the radio, and isn’t adverse to a little sex now and then. She’s committed, principled, and uncompromising, and a very welcome addition to the ranks of the genre.
V.I. has proven to be one of the most popular and influential, and certainly one of the hardest (and hardest working) of the modern eyes. V.I.’s politics are straight up, and she remains determined and committed. So determined and committed that she can occasionally come off as “unapologetically strident,” as The New York Times once put it.
But that comes with the territory. To paraphrase Chandler, “Down these mean streets a woman must go who is not herself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. She is the hero; she is everything. She must be a complete woman and a common woman and yet an unusual woman. She must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a woman of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. She must be the best woman in his world and a good enough woman for any world.”
It’s that same unflinching quality and sense of uncompromising resolve that may have helped attract the attention of actress Kathleen Turner, who used her box office clout to get a big budget film produced. Unfortunately the result, 1991’s V.I. Warshawski, was a sloppy, disappointing mess; ruined by a bunch of lazy clichés and a cobbled-together and misguided potboiler plot. Nor did it help that Turner, despite all her good intentions, was simply miscast. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always pictured V.I. as rather tight and focussed and more than a little frosty. Turner’s just a big, warm comfy femme fatale wannabe in the film, with hair about two sizes too big — presumably to make her more audience-friendly. And don’t even get me started on the cute kid and the dog the studio saddled her with.
Because if there’s one thing V.I. has never been accused of, it’s being “audience-friendly.” Or, God forbid, perky. Or spunky. Trying to recast her as Mary Tyler Moore, the film was just begging to fail. On the other hand, selling the rights to Hollywood did allow Paretsky to quit her day job and start writing full-time, for which all us mystery readers can be eternally grateful.
Let’s face it–V.I. can be abrasive. And I’m with her when it comes to politics. Her attempts to seem hip or cool just grate–as when she uses words like “chill” or name drops pop culture, she just reinforces how out of it she seems. But the same traits that rub me the wrong way if she were a real person ironically make her interesting and compelling as a fictional character. She’s about as unapologetically in-your-face as series private eyes come these days. I mean, it’s not coincidence that several people have drawn parallels between V.I. and the equally uncompromising and personally obsessed Mike Hammer over the years. Same coin; two very different sides.
In fact, given V.I.’s harsh, unbending beliefs (despite periodic bouts of handwringing), her fierce determination to never compromise and the high toll it’s taken on her emotional and social life, I sometimes wonder if she’s going to completely break down one of these days, or perhaps go completely ballistic, à la Hammer in One Lonely Night.
But no. She’s too tough a cookie for that. Another thing for which we can all be grateful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Paretsky, like her creation, walks it like she talks it. An ardent feminist, she’s ready and willing to stand up and be heard. She founded Sisters in Crime to help fellow women mystery writers get their fair share. She has also edited a few major anthologies of short stories by contemporary women mystery writers, A Woman’s Eye (1991) and Women on the Case (1996). In fact, her work in other areas seemed to have taken her away from V.I. In 1999, after a long, five year absence, though, V.I. returned, in Hard Time, and has since appeared more or less regularly every few years, every new release scooting to the top of the bestseller lists.
- ” ‘A series character,’ says Paretsky in an interview, ‘is your secret Playmate.’ Interviewers have their own way of changing the emphasis of the most self deprecating quote and V. I. is more than a playmate. Once she was given life, she could not and will not be controlled and she will certainly not conform to anyone’s games. Some playmate. You must love or hate her, since the only other choice is a kind of cold fascination which really will not do for such a glorious woman. The best route is to learn to love her even when she makes you choke, but don’t consider her as a cosy and don’t apologize for her behaviour. Not a playmate then, but an alter ego for the bravest as well as the coward; an example of consistent honour: a piece of damaged goods propelled in wrong directions as well as right. Led by the kind of energy which can destroy as well as reform, V. I. is a lost soul of conspicuous intelligence and hectic kindness. One who sheds a skin as easily as a car, she heals her own wounds without crying for help because each time she cried that way before, the silence was not golden. She is lonely often, pathetic, never. The wit is a downtown acid, the eating habits eclectic, the apartment a mess, but the shoes and the courage are divine. Her best possessions are frequently ruined, which she accepts with resignation but not without regret, especially the shoes. To fill the vacuum of her energy and to feed the gnawing conscience, Warshawski will push herself to the limit. She will vex her friends and I wish she was the best of mine, not for the knife edge of anxiety she would cause, but only for the joy of it.”
— Francis Fyfield, from The Scorpion Press
- “Fire Sale is at least in one sense all about mothers and children — which I find rather amusing since V.I. Warshawski is possibly the least maternal of all P.I.s. Brittle, hard and judgemental, fixated on her dead mother and so wrapped up in her own world that she often seems completely lacking in actual empathy, it’s hard to imagine anyone less mom-like. God, a child might break one of her precious Venetian wineglasses! And yet, once again, Paretsky pulls it off.”
— Kevin Burton Smith, on Fire Sale
- “For me the most remarkable of the moderns is Sara Paretsky. When she created her private eye, V.I. Warshawski, it was in conscious emulation of the myth of the solitary private eye and his lone campaign against the corruption of the powerful… Through her heroine and in her private life of speaking and journalism, Paretsky conducts her campaign against injustice and, in particular, for the right of women to control their lives and their sexuality. No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest. And here, too, we see the influence of Raymond Chandler.”
— P.D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction (2009)
- “You think you mean well, but you know nothing about life down here. And don’t tell me a story about growing up down here because you still know nothing, anyway.”
— a minimum wage mother, fearful of losing her job, confronts V.I. in Fire Sale
STRAIGHT FROM THE AUTHOR’S MOUTH
- “A gloomy late-fall day in Chicago, cool, drizzle, dying leaves. It was on a day much like this that V.I. Warshawski was conceived… I was working for CNA Insurance in Chicago, part of the wave of young women entering management and the professions in large numbers in the 1970s. We had male bosses who were great mentors, some who were ordinary average managers, and a handful of pills who liked to throw boulders in front of us so they could laugh when we tripped and fell. I was working for one of those, Fred, I call him, at a meeting in his office, looking down on Grant Park in the dreary drizzly day. For about 8 years I’d been imagining writing a crime novel with a woman P.I., someone to turn the tables on Chandler, et al, but I wasn’t getting traction. And suddenly in that meeting, my lips [were] saying, ‘Gosh, Fred, heck of an idea,’ while the balloon over my head was saying, ‘you expletive-deleted turkey bird,’ [and] V.I. came to me. Not Philip Marlowe in drag, but a woman like me and my friends, doing a job that hadn’t existed for women when we were growing up, but saying what was in the balloon over her head because she dealt with the turkey birds without fear or favor. I guess I should send Fred a thank-you note (although at the rate he ate eggs Benedict when I had to travel with him and see him at breakfast may mean he’s sunk beneath his cholesterol by now. Although, of course, only the good die young).”
— Sara Paretsky (October 2015, Facebook)
- Indemnity Only (1982) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Deadlock (1984) | Buy this book
- Killing Orders (1985) | Buy this book
- Bitter Medicine (1987) | Buy this book
- Blood Shot (1988) | Buy this book
- Burn Marks (1990) | Buy this book
- Guardian Angel (1992) | Buy this book
- Tunnel Vision (1994) | Buy this book
- Hard Time (1999) | Buy this book
- Total Recall (2001) | Buy this book
- Blacklist (2003) | Buy this book
- Fire Sale (2005) | Buy this book
- Hardball (2009) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Body Work (2010) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Breakdown (2012) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Critical Mass (2013) | Buy this book | Buy the audiobook | Kindle it!
- Brush Back (2015) | Buy this book…Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Fallout (2017) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Shell Game (2018) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Deadland (2020) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Overboard (2022) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
ALSO OF INTEREST
- Writing in an Age of Silence (2007) | Buy this book
Still fighting the good fight, Paretsky instills her powerful (but now dated) memoir with all the passion, anger and righteous indignation you’d expect. Paretsky refuses to separate her art and her politics — and argues that no artist should — but when she zeroes in on “the Junior Mr. Bush” and the much-hated Patriot Act, the long smouldering rage ignites. Not for the timid or the intellectually slack-jawed, this was as timely and as truly patriotic a tome as I’ve ever come across.
- “The Takamoku Joseki” (January 1984, AHMM)
- “Three-Dot Po” (1984, The Eyes Have It)
- “At the Old Swimming Hole” (1986, Mean Streets)
- “Skin Deep” (1987, New Black Mask #8)
- “The Case of the Pietro Andromache” (December 1988, AHMM)
- “Settled Score” (1991, A Woman’s Eye)
- “The Maltese Cat” (1990, Sisters in Crime #3)
- “Strung Out” (1992, Deadly Allies)
- “Grace Notes” (1995, Windy City Blues)
- “Publicity Stunts” (1996, Women on the Case; 1998, Lethal Ladies II)
- “Photo Finish” (Summer 2000, MHCMM)
- “A Family Sunday in the Park” (2007, Sisters on the Case)
- “Family Affair” (2015, Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora)
- “Wildcat” (March 2017, digital) | Kindle it!
- “Death on the Edge” (September 2018, digital) | Kindle it!
- “Love & Other Crimes” (2020, Love & Other Crimes: Stories)
- Windy City Blues (1995) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Love & Other Crimes: Stories (2020) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- V.I. WARSHAWSKI | Buy this video | Buy this DVD
(1991, Hollywood Pictures)
Based (allegedly) on characters created by Sara Paretsky
Screen story by Edward Taylor
Screenplay by Edward Taylor, David Aaron Cohen and Nick Thiel
Directed by Jeff Kanew
Produced by Jeffrey Lurie
Co-producers: Doug Claybourne
Co-executive producers: John Bard Manulis, Lauren Weissman
Executive producers: Penney Finkelman Cox, John P. Marsh, Lauren Weissman
Starring Kathleen Turner as V.I. WARSHAWSKI
Also starring Charles Durning, Jay O. Sanders, Angela Goethals, Charles Durning, Nancy Paul, Frederick Coffin, Charles McCaughan, Stephen Meadows, Wayne Knight, Lynnie Godfrey, Anne Pitoniak, Stephen Root, Robert Clotworthy, Tom Allard, Mike Hagerty
- KILLING ORDERS
(1991, BBC Radio 4)
Premiere: November 1991
Based on the novel by Sara Paretsky
Dramatised in six parts by Michelene Wandor.
Directed by Janet Whitaker
Starring Kathleen Turner as V.I. Warshawski
Also starring Martin Shaw, Avril Clark, William Hootkins, Eileen Way, Don Fellows, Colin Stinton, Peter Penry-Jones, Maurice Denham, Miriam Karlin, John Bennett, Lorelei King, Kerry Shale, Adjoa Andoh, Andrew Wincott, William Hootkins
- “Remembrance of Things Past”
- “Forging Ahead”
- “Acid Test”
- “The Fire Next Time”
- “Dinner Date”
- “No One Is Lucky Forever”
- PUBLICITY STUNTS
(2003, BBC 7)
Premiere: December 2003
Based on the short story by Sara Paretsky
Dramatised by Michelene
Produced by Producer: Joanne Reardon
Read in two parts by Buffy Davis.
- Sara Paretsky
The author’s official web site. Good for a well-written and intelligent rant or two, plus the usual bios, bibliography, etc.
- Sara Paretsky Writes What’s On Her Mind
The legendary crime writer on white collar crime, her lifelong activism, and the importance of a good editor, in a great interview by Lori Rader-Day (May 2019, CrimeReads)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.