A while back I suggested my book group read Tunnel Vision, one of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawki novels. In that novel, V.I., one of the first modern female private eyes, investigates a seemingly shady charitable organization. Along with solving more than one mystery, V.I. attempts to help a homeless woman and her children. As is often the case, V.I.’s methods are unconventional, and she distrusts authority.
I thought the social issues the book raises would be great to discuss. So I was shocked when instead, group members could not get past that they didn’t like V.I. Not like V.I.? I started reading Sara Paretsky’s novels in the late 80s. Since then, through financial ups and downs and despite the purchase of a Kindle, Sara Paretsky is the one author whose books I always buy in hardback the first day they come out. But my friends found V.I. Warshawski too abrasive, too combative, and too apt to think she knows what’s best.
So, why do I love V.I.?
V.I. is V.I., not Victoria Iphigenia: From the first book on, V.I. goes by V.I. in part because so often in the 80s (and beyond) people addressed women by first names in business even when their male counterparts were “Mr.” I identified with this, having worked full time at an office while I pursued fiction writing on the side. I earned a degree in Writing/English, and the company I worked for through college loved me and offered me a full time job – as a file/data entry clerk. A recent male college grad with the same degree and no job experience was hired at the same time – as a media writer. And, oh, yes, first names for the women supervisors, “Mr.” for the men.
V.I. has friends who disagree with her: One thing that bothered my book group colleagues is that V.I.’s friends are very hard on her in Tunnel Vision. Lottie, a doctor, gives free medical care to the homeless family V.I. attempts to aid, but upbraids V.I. for refusing to call the authorities about the family. V.I.’s other friends are angry when her investigation threatens to tank their business deal. I like that V.I. is sure enough of herself to have friends who think differently than she does and who say so. It’s easy to have friends who always tell us how great we are, and of course that’s part of why we need and want friends. But it takes a strong, confident person to respect and keep friends who disagree.
V.I. has friends: I get so tired of reading books where single women characters are portrayed as having lonely, empty lives solely because they are single. In one mystery I read by another author, the main character comments on how she has no pets, has never decorated her apartment, and doesn’t even own a plant because she’s never married. She looks longingly at a nice restaurant and thinks how great it would be to go there but she hasn’t had a date in five years. By this time, I thought, what, the restaurant prohibits two women friends from dining together? Only couples allowed? And, good lord, go buy some plants already. Or does the nursery and craft store make you show a wedding ring before you can get a ficus? I love that V.I. has good friends she’s known for years, is always meeting new people, has a family-like relationship with her neighbor Mr. Contreras, and is as devoted to her cousin Petra – who is often annoying but finally seems to be maturing – as if Petra were her daughter. And V.I. not only has friends, she is fiercely loyal to them. When Mr. Contreras worries about paying his real estate taxes, she vows to help him, despite not knowing how she’ll pay her own bills. Which brings me to my next reason to love V.I:
V.I. has a real life: V.I. not only must solve mysteries, but run her business. When her office floods, she has to figure out how to sort through the paperwork and restore her computers. When she gets in trouble with the law, she calls her lawyer, then needs to pay his bill. She has clients who pay well but make unreasonable demands. She has clients whose cases she takes to heart who can’t pay her a cent. And she has dogs to run and feed every day.
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V.I. has a healthy view of romantic relationships: Over the years and the mysteries, V.I. has had a few serious relationships and has been single for long periods. Sara Paretsky describes so well the pluses and drawbacks of being single. The joy of making your own choices and fashioning your life around what works best for you, the beauty of solitude, the practical difficulties of being single in a world of couples (like when V.I. comments on how her refrigerator is empty because no one shopped), and the occasional loneliness and longing for a connection with a romantic partner. Also, V.I. knows how to be in a relationship without losing her sense of who she is, and she has friends who can do the same.
V.I. cares about social issues: Perhaps this topic should be “Sara Paretsky cares about social issues.” Sara Paretsky’s books always address larger issues, such as women’s roles in society, how we treat the mentally ill, homelessness, abortion. This may lose some readers who don’t agree with her views. But whether or not I agree with Paretsky, she always tells a story that matters.
I know she’s a fictional character, but V.I. Warshawski challenges me to take chances and do my best. Seeing V.I. work for herself all these years helped prompt me to start my own solo law practice after years at a large firm. And her creator, Sara Paretsky, inspired me to write the kind of book I like to read – a thriller with a female protagonist, despite that most thrillers are by and about men. Every time I read a new Sara Paretsky book, it pushes me to try to create characters readers will love the way I love V.I. Author/philosopher Ayn Rand once described the proper purpose of fiction as depicting life as it might be and ought to be. For me, V.I. is what a good friend – and a good person – might be and ought to be, and I hope always will be.
Lisa M. Lilly is the author of occult thrillers THE AWAKENING (Book 1) and THE UNBELIEVERS (Book 2 of The Awakening series), short story collection THE TOWER FORMERLY SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR, and numerous poems, short stories, and articles. She is also an attorney.