Bee Book Club: Sara Paretsky admires her unvarnished sleuth

“For years I’d had a daydream about creating a woman private eye who would turn the tables on Raymond Chandler,” Sara Paretsky said.
“For years I’d had a daydream about creating a woman private eye who would turn the tables on Raymond Chandler,” Sara Paretsky said. Associated Press file

Sara Paretsky sounded composed when she answered the phone in her Chicago home. That, in spite of last-minute preparations to jet out the next morning for London, the first stop on her tour of England and Scotland for “Brush Back.” It’s the 17th title in her best-selling mystery series and the Bee Book Club’s choice for August, in partnership with the Sacramento Public Library (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $28, 480 pages).

Paretsky, 68, made her signature character, private investigator V.I. Warshawski of Chicago, as tough as a bucket of nails and as independent as a cat. V.I.’s mission: Protect the downtrodden. Her method: Whatever it takes.

Former defense attorney “Vic,” as her friends call her, got fed up with the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the legal profession, so scored a P.I. license and went to work. She packs heat, has a quick temper and doesn’t give a hoot about impulse control. She can take a punch and give one, drinks Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch and sleeps in the nude.

In short, she’s the distillation of the cynical, wise-cracking, “hard-boiled” P.I.s who emerged last century from a brotherhood of mystery writers that included Dashiell Hammett (creator of Sam Spade), Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer), Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer), John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee) and Robert B. Parker (Spenser).

Though Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller have written their feminist P.I.s for decades (Kinsey Millhone and Sharon McCone, respectively), it was Paretsky who most dramatically altered the face of detective fiction by introducing her more gritty heroine to the modernized hard-boiled subgenre in “Indemnity Only” in 1982. In further trailblazing, in 1987 she became the “founding mother” of Sisters In Crime , the association of women mystery writers now with chapters in cities around the world, including Sacramento.

“For years I’d had a daydream about creating a woman private eye who would turn the tables on Raymond Chandler,” she said. “In most of his books there’s a woman who presents herself sexually and who’s the main baddie.

“V.I. had a predecessor, Minerva, but she never really came to life,” Paretsky recalled. “I decided on a character more like my friends and me, a woman facing the same kinds of obstacles. She has a sex life, but it doesn’t make her wicked. She can solve problems. But she also worries about the health and happiness of the people she cares about.”

How much of V.I. lives within Paretesky?

“She fulfills my fantasy life about being able to physically do many things I cannot do,” she said. “But what she really does is speak out. V.I. is always showing me how to be more courageous and more moral than I am.”

Paretsky’s husband of 39 years, Courtenay Wright, is a retired physics professor “and my biggest fan and best editor,” she said. “He likes strong women, and women who take him by surprise. I guess both V.I. and I do that – maybe her a little more than me.”

Christine Pepe has been Paretsky’s hands-on editor for 11-plus years. “My job is to listen and act as her sounding board,” said Pepe, vice president and executive editor of G.P. Putnam’s Sons. “Sara and V.I. both have codes that guide them, and they both continue to forge new paths as strong women who never back down.”

The move to Chicago

Paretsky’s backstory seems tame compared to V.I.’s, but not lacking in drama. As a political science major at the University of Kansas, she “answered a call for college volunteers to do (civil rights-oriented) community service in Chicago,” she said.

After college, Paretsky returned to Chicago, landed a secretarial job at the University of Chicago and won a fellowship to study history (she earned a Ph.D and, on the side, an MBA in business). Later, from 1977 through 1986, she was a marketing manager for a multinational insurance company. That marked the start of a sea change.

“I was part of that first generation of women entering corporate management, and I worked for a man who was threatened by that,” Paretsky said. “In the middle of a meeting with him, while my lips were saying, ‘Gosh, Fred, that’s a heck of an idea!’ the balloon over my head was saying something unprintable. Suddenly, at that moment, V.I. came to me. Although I’d been writing privately all my life, I couldn’t imagine writing for publication, but I finally found the courage. I wrote the first three books while I was working full time there.”

Because “self-doubt is my constant plague,” Paretsky struggled at first. “I had written 70 pages of the first book and I was saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’” Then she discovered mystery writer Stuart Kaminsky’s night class at the University of Chicago, “Writing Detective Fiction for Publication.”

“Stuart gave me the psychological boost I needed to finish the book,” Paretsky recalled. “He was kind enough to send it to his agent, who agreed to represent me.”

From page to screen

Surprisingly, only one of Paretsky’s action-filled books has been made into a movie. “V.I. Warshawski” (1991) was meant to kick off a film franchise for star Kathleen Turner, but it flopped. The film’s convoluted plot had little in common with its source material, “Deadlock” (1984).

“I liked a lot of what Kathleen Turner did, but the humor (the screenwriters) wrote into it …” Paretsky mused, “not that I’ve ever been in a teenage boys’ locker room, but …”

Fans also are still waiting for a second V.I. movie because Walt Disney Studios owns the rights to the character through 2021 and doesn’t seem interested in making a second film.

“I was young and ignorant at the time (the deal was made), and my agent was pretty new to the business,” Paretsky said. “TNT was interested in making a made-for-TV movie last year, but Disney wouldn’t budge. It makes you think you’d like to have the girl detective sabotage them in some way.”

A phone call and an email to Disney Studios, asking for comment, were not returned.

Currently, Paretsky is “in the very early stages of a new book in the series, but I’m having a lot of trouble figuring out how to tell it,” she said. “My dad was a cell biologist who worked on the fringes of biological weaponry. He didn’t develop any himself, but he did something extremely dramatic. I want it as the crux of the story, but it would spoil the book if I told you and then everybody read about it.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Bee Book Club event

Sara Paretsky will give her Bee Book Club presentation at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. It’s a free event, but tickets are required. They are available now at

“Brush Back” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $28, 480 pages) will be offered at a 30 percent discount through Aug. 6 at these bookstores: Barnes & Noble; Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento; Avid Reader in Davis; Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills; Time Tested Books; Underground Books; Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento; the UC Davis Bookstore; and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.

Booksellers from Barnes & Noble will be at the Galleria during the event, selling discounted, pre-autographed copies of “Brush Back,” along with some of Paretsky’s backlist titles.