Diablog: Hard Time and the LadyPerson Mystery Writer

1999 mystery novel about prison privatization. Take a look.

Rasha: Shall we dive into ladypeople mystery writers?

Gemma: We shall! Do we begin with Hard Time and work outwards?

R: I have not yet finished re-reading Hard Time. I picked it up for poolside reading this summer, and it was seriously stressing me out! I put aside after the first few chapters and just didn’t get back to it. So I can start there, but you may have to take the lead or remind me of specific plot points I’d forgotten.

G: I mean, Sara Paretsky’s Hard Time is the master text of Great Frame-Up Turned Dangerous Espionage Op. The difference between that and other frame-up stories (which as you know I have a weakness for) being that V.I. Warshawski is always outside the establishment in the first place.

Haven’t seen the V.I. Warshawski movie, but I admit to being curious.

R: I think it was the frame-up that was stressing me out, especially given the first-person narration and the clear police conspiracy to frame her/get her shot? Like, it’s not just some civilian trying to frame her. After this summer and the last few years of what feels like nationwide insanity on the part of police departments, even knowing that she survives in the end did not make those early chapters any less stressful. So, successful writing, I guess?

G: To be fair, there was only one cop who was part of the conspiracy; he was on the take from the head of the private prison corporation. But I am very impressed that she was writing about that in the ’90s. The private prison CEO was the one who was leading the charge to frame her/get her shot.

R: There were definitely activists and organizations working against private prisons in the ’90s and even before, but yes, I’d agree that there wasn’t much popular writing critical of private prisons, or prisons in general, much less fiction, I mean, unless you go back to Kafka or Les Miserables. In the American context, Shawshank Redemption feels like baked cookies in comparison.

G: Yeah. In the ’80s and ’90s, Paretsky was writing about elements of high-level corruption that not a lot of popular authors–or TV shows–were taking on. These days she’s mostly dealing with characters who are the descendants of people with 20th-century shady histories, but the old stuff goes deep.

Paretsky studied political science in college and worked in corporate finance before becoming a full time writer.

R: I wish her writing didn’t feel so uneven, but I can understand someone wanting to do different things if she felt like she’d done what she could. But yes, there are environmental disasters, development conspiracies, healthcare issues. The early V.I. Warshawski novels are an amazing combination of light reading and heavy content. One thing that is interesting to me in the book are the ways in which, as an outsider with insider knowledge, Warshawski has to break or bend the rules and refuse to go along with what good people are supposed to do. But unlike vigilante genre stories with mostly male protagonists (but increasingly female protagonists, too), she isn’t shooting people–she’s doing things like getting her car checked out by an independent auto inspection in case they police impound it and try to manufacture evidence. That is eminently practical and much less action-movie.

G: Yes. I agree about the uneven writing; she often veers way too far towards the sentimental. But V.I.’s actions are practical and have consequences, and when she makes a hotheaded vigilante mistake, it’s not an unequivocal good because it’s For the Greater Good. She has a relationship with cops, is the daughter of a cop, but doesn’t have the temperament or respect for authority to become a cop herself, even as she “wants to help people” the way that book/TV cops most often do. And yes, outsiders with insider knowledge are always my favorites.

Inside and outside her own office, even.

Of course, Paretsky’s having a very hard time aging her, if you check out the recent books. She can’t stomach her lack of physical resilience. She should’ve done what Sue Grafton did, and made the process of aging in the books much, much slower than the pace of books coming out.

R: I haven’t read any of the more recent books. This is making me think of Beynon Rees’ Grave in Gaza books featuring an elderly Arab gent as the detective and his bodily grumps. It has its limits, but it’s an interesting experience. Detective fiction is one of the few places where older characters can thrive as badasses. Maybe not if they’re trying to also be Chicago’s Jane Bond.  Of the later V.I. books, Is there a better one among them?

G: There was an interesting one about graveyards and the grandchildren of Holocaust profiteers. It was called Breakdown.

R: Alright. I’ll add it to my queue.

G: But yeah, Omar Yusuf’s bodily grumps figured prominently in the first book (which is the only one I’ve read), and Paretsky is so used to Warshawski being a physical badass that she’s having a hard time accepting her aging. I mean, woman was almost fifty even in Hard Time when she fell onto the train. That was madness.

R: A bit of an ode– I love it that V.I. was a boxer on the Southside, grew up there, went to a “fancy school” (any guess which one? ;), and that as much of a badass as she is, she still has some physical weakness and jealousies. Her few prized expensive pieces of professional clothing get messy and she is p*ssed that she has to change before going from swamp combing to a client meeting. She is an ally to many women, but still can be catty about characters like the lady lawyer with Murray who  looks like she works out with small weights and only eats salad.

G: She says what “fancy school” it is in several other books! But yes. She gets to own her contradictions and still be important.

R: I think the 1st-person narration gifts us some of those in a way that 3rd person can’t.

G: I absolutely agree. There’s a visceral engagement with the actions. Faye Kellerman uses exclusively third person, and I think it allows an author to cut corners in a mystery.

R: I have been thinking the same thing about PD James recently.

G: I love V.I. for doing stupid sh*t and still being awesome.


G: Oh, really? Say more about it with PD James.

R: Well, I’ve been reading her this year as my “treat” fiction. Adam Dalgleish as the poet-detective is a very satisfying and comforting figure, but he usually figures out the mystery– and says that he thinks he has– before he shares it with the reader or anyone else. We get to hear Dalgleish wax about who he’s dating or the nature of human character or the qualities of ancient church architecture, all in his own head, but we don’t get to know what he’s thinking about the case once he’s solved it. Much of the books are so lush and satisfying otherwise, that it usually just propels me faster to the end, but it does begin to seem cheap.

G: Yeah, I agree. There’s a coyness to that. If we can get one part of their thoughts, it always feels odd to close off the others. With Warshawski, in first person, she’s always genuinely missing a piece, and we discover it with her.

R: Are Kellerman or Grafton’s protagonists private detectives or cops?

G: Grafton’s is a PI. F. Kellerman’s is mainly a cop and his wife. (J. Kellerman’s–F. Kellerman’s husband–is a child psychologist whose best friend is the only openly gay detective on the LAPD when the series starts in the ’80s.)

R: I admit that there is a certain comfort to Dalgleish’s authoritative arrival in any PD James novel. Her young female private investigator is much less likely to figure it all out before the end of the novel, but she also seems to be required to nearly drown in a narrow well in the climax of every book. But James does manage more of a plot with the outsider investigator than with the cop.

For the record, Dalgleish has dark hair, and there’s no way this is what he looks like. Clive Owen would be a much better choice.

G: Cordelia. And yes, that’s happened in the ones I’ve read with her. But I think in detective fiction I long for something of an antihero. I want my protagonist to get in their own way.

R: Dalgleish definitely doesn’t do that. Cordelia Gray does a bit, but not as much as Warshawski. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot definitely doesn’t. I had to give up Christie. I do not think she’s the master of the genre.

G: Really? I’ve never read her. Why not?

R: Well, I think I’ve told you the trick to figuring out which character did it in any Agatha Christie novel? It’s the person with the lowest class status, though they may sometimes be pretending to high class ways. It’s tedious, and doesn’t seem to offer much insight into human character or society, which is really what feels most enjoyable in detective fiction to me, or really in most fiction.

G: Oof. Yeah. That’s difficult.

R: I tried reading Margery Allingham because PD James name drops her in almost every book–where there’s bound to be someone who really likes golden age British mystery.

G: Should I bother with Christie? And how was Allingham?

Charming Poirot.

R: Read Murder on the Orient Express, if you must. She is a puzzle maker, and Poirot’s dryness can be satisfying. The Allingham I picked up featured a Turkish character in the first few pages who was portrayed in what felt like a derogatory and even racist way as a plot device, and I returned it to the bookstore.

G: Fair enough. I do like puzzles. And dryness.

R: Poirot is a delightful character, but the puzzles and the other characters get tedious. I haven’t read any of the Ms. Marple ones.

G: But I do feel like there’s a lot of lip service paid in mystery fiction, books and TV, to “the job getting to you,” and not a hell of a lot of actual portrayal of it. I like V.I. because the job does get to her, visibly and viscerally, and she’s compelled to do it anyway. There’s a touch of that in Kinsey Millhone, too. (That’s the Grafton protagonist.)

R: Then you might enjoy one of PD James’ other books about a historic publishing house. I think it’s one of her better ones. Hold on, I’ll ge the title.

G: Are there any final statements we want to make about female mystery writers? Do we think there’s something about a female perspective, even when, as with James, they’re writing a male protag? Or F. Kellerman, for that matter?

R: Original Sin by James. I’d recommend that next if you read one of hers. It’s some satisfying inside-baseball of the publishing industry and what feel like James’ comments on her own writing and her experience with editors and publishers. And the job does get to someone finally.

I do like these editions with their plot talismans on the cover.

G: I do like that kind of inside baseball!

R: One thing I love about James’ writing is her lush characterization. These people are so alive and real! They aren’t just devices for a plot, and even the people who are “innocent” of a crime aren’t “innocent.” See Innocent Blood for example! You’ve talked before about loving VI’s chosen family of friends and professional experts. It’s hard to say something overall about female mystery writers given their variousness, and my lack of reading of many male mystery writers, but I do enjoy a good mystery as treat reading.

G: I love mystery as candy-reading too. It’s a good way to unwind. Both James and Paretsky seem to concern themselves deeply with community and communities, and how communities respond. James, in what I’ve read so far, creates these exquisite miniature worlds–with beautiful characterization, exactly–of small towns, and there’s this rawness to all the transformations of Chicago and how people do and don’t transform with it that all the Paretsky novels contain. That exists in the Grafton novels, too, in the fictionalized town of “Santa Teresa.”

R: Any writers/books in the mystery genre you want to read that you haven’t yet? Maybe we could close with that. I’ve been curious about Ngaio Marsh, NZer, one of the early Queens of Crime.

G: I think I do need to read Christie, just so I know. I haven’t heard of Ngaio Marsh, but I’d happily check her out!

Dame Ngaio Marsh, who lived with her lady friend, and along with Christie, Allingham, and Sayers, was one of the original Queens of Crime.