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P.I.

Blacklist, Sara Paretsky, Putnam, $24.95.

Blacklist by Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky proves once again why she's one of the most interesting of all American crime writers - she has so much to say, it hardly fits inside this passionate book, a book that finds V.I. back on her well traveled and (for readers) enjoyable path. Neither V.I. nor the author seem to be mellowing with age - in fact, the opposite may be true. While V.I. has reached a truce with her affectionate, irritating neighbor, Mr. Contreras, she has reached a truce with no-one else in her life, including her lover, Morrell, who has disappeared into the wilds of Afghanistan, unreachable by either phone or e-mail, much to V.I.'s intense frustration. This is a book haunted by ghosts - by the recent ghost of 9/11, by the present war in Iraq, and more distantly, by the activities of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 50's. Crime writers are taking the bit between their teeth and dealing with 9/11 - Michael Connelly dances around the Patriot Act in Lost Light, and Paretsky picks up the thread more directly - for her, there's an unbroken link between the HUAC and John Ashcroft's Patriot Act.

Being a mystery writer, though, Paretsky also gifts her readers with a compelling plot to hang her political beliefs on - V.I. has been asked by a wealthy and regular client to keep an eye on his boyhood home out in the extremely ritzy suburbs of Chicago - his aged mother has been seeing lights in the attic of her former house - a mystery, as it's unoccupied. The client, Darraugh Graham, is certain his mother is imagining things, but the local police are fed up with her calls, and he thinks V.I. can check things out more discretely. V.I. being V.I., she finds not lights in the attic when she goes out to explore, but a dead body in the ornamental pond, and it leads her on a chase that has her examining the death of the man - a reporter who was looking into the life of a blacklisted dancer and University of Chicago Professor in the 50's.

This book is shaped not only by the ghosts of 9/11 and the 50's blacklists, but more compellingly, by the portraits of the strong women who inhabit its pages. One of them is Darragh Graham's mother, Geraldine, an imposing woman for whom V.I. comes to have a grudging respect; one is the dead dancer in question, Kylie Ballantine; and two are the powerful CEO of a powerhouse Chicago publishing empire, Renee Bayard, and Renee's granddaughter, Catherine. These women are the forces that shape the story, and as usual, V.I. is fighting with all and sundry, not getting enough to eat or enough sleep, and solving the whole intensely complicated mix-up with her usual smarts and persistence. One of Paretsky's gifts is making the reader care about many of the characters in all of her books - this one brought me to tears by the end - and one of her weaknesses is her black and white attitude towards rich/poor. According to V.I., no rich person can actually suffer, and few poor ones can be less than noble or good hearted. This sometimes is wearing - V.I. is an exhausting companion - but she's never less than her compelling self, for which, 12 books on into what has become a classic series, we owe her creator a debt of gratitude.

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