Review: Hardball by Sara Paretsky

While I don’t wait with quite the anticipation I used to have for a new V I Warshawski novel, I do still have a soft spot for the first female character I ever identified with in a work of crime fiction and so borrowed Hardball from the library recently.

In the thirteenth novel to feature Chicago private detective V.I. Warshawski she is hired by a pair of elderly sisters to find their son/nephew Lamont Gadsden who disappeared 40 years previously during a wild winter storm that brought the city to a halt. V.I. reluctantly agrees to take on the case despite her misgivings about the huge time gap since the Gadsden was last seen and his probable involvement with the Anacondas, one of the city’s roughest street gangs which remains active though its leader is in prison. Just as she embarks on the investigation which takes her back through the city’s history and that of her own family, V.I.’s young cousin Petra arrives in the city to work on the senate campaign of an old friend of her father’s and soon becomes embroiled in V.I.’s life.

As I mentioned in a post last year I was a huge fan of the early novels in this series but had grown a little weary of the unrelenting lecturing to be found in the later installments. Happily in Hardball though the politics is present it’s not nearly as strident as in novels like Blacklist and, more importantly, is woven into the tale as it should be: with deft characterisations and great storytelling rather than the repeated bludgeoning with Important Messages that occurred in a couple of the previous novels.  The novel does tackle tough subjects such as police corruption and institutional racism but these themes are woven into an intriguing tale that contains an unorthodox mix of characters and links the present day back to the late 1960’s when racial tensions were high. The book is all the more poignant because of  its very realistic portrayal of this part of history.

As always V.I. is far from perfect, being quick to let her anger show and one of the most stubborn women on earth, but far more believable because of her imperfections. To balance things out she’s fiercely loyal, smart and almost bursting with a social conscience that she translates into practical action in a way that I imagine many of us would envy. In Hardball her working class family’s history, a constant theme across the series, is further revealed as her now dead father’s early years on the police force are highlighted and, toughest of all for V.I., his integrity is questioned. Paretsky has always done a terrific job of showing snippets of V.I.’s past to reveal how it is she has grown into the woman she is and this book adds beautifully to that character development. None of the familiar people in V.I.’s life do much more than make appearances in Hardball which might be a little disappointing for die-hard fans. However young Petra, a new character to the series, is introduced nicely and without the older person’s disdain for the youth of today that populates many novels by ‘people of a certain age’. I imagine Petra might just have done enough of interest to make a return in future books.

This is a return to Paretsky’s finest form and was a thoroughly unexpected treat for me. It’s pure guesswork on my part but I suspect that Paretsky’s own anger at the world and its many injustices has diminished a smidgen since the changeover in the American presidency and it is perhaps this that has enabled her to return to the high standards of her original work. Whatever the reason I’d highly recommend Hardball to both fans of the early Warshawksi novels and those who’ve always been curious about the series but don’t have the energy to start with the first book as it can easily stand on its own. I could not put this down for the last 150 or so pages and am now eagerly anticipating the next book which according to Paretsky’s blog is to be called Body Works and is well under way (you can read chapter 1 here).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4.5/5

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton [2009]; ISBN: 9780340839157; Length 446  pages; Setting: Chicago, USA, present-day.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Hardball has also been reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence

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10 Responses to Review: Hardball by Sara Paretsky

  1. Bernadette – I’m so glad you enjoyed Hardball. I agree completely that too much preachiness can take a lot away from a novel, especially if the message isn’t an integral part of the story. It sounds as though Peretsky has focused again on a solid plot and a tightly-woven mystery. I honestly wasn’t going to read this one, for just the reasons you mentioned, but now, I think it’s time to re-think that.

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  2. Dorte H says:

    I can see I will also have to reconsider the series.

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  3. Maxine says:

    Maybe I’ll reconsider too. I did enjoy the first few but was very, er, burnt, by Fire Sale (groan, sorry). I felt hectored by it. Also the plot was weak as it was bogged down by baggage.
    Thanks for a great review (as usual) and for the encouraging news about Sara P who I think is a very talented author. If I were American I would be somewhat relieved at the new(ish) president, too, but some of them seem to be an ungrateful lot with short memories. Who do these critics think would be better than Obama? (Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical!)

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  4. Barbara says:

    I love Paretsky’s ideas for stories, but the dialogue and characters and OTT plot developments bug me. I found the voice of Petra really irritating. Chicago Valley Girl. I hope she starts to sound more like the person she’s meant to be.

    Paretsky seemed both tired and embittered at Bouchercon, but then again… most of us Yanks are a bit of both 🙂

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  5. Barbara says:

    …. though it looks as if health care of a sort is going to pass. The ugliness involved has been dispiriting, though.

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  6. I thought Petra was quite a realistic 20-year old Barbara – I find the real life ones a bit irritating at times too (but then I am a grumpy 42 year old). I thought Paretsky captured that ‘brink of adulthood not quite as smart as you think you are but haven’t worked that out yet’ essence that’s so much a part of being that age.

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