Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book review: Blacklist

Sara Paretsky, Blacklist (New York: New American Library, 2003; Signet 2004).

For years, I’ve loved V.I. Wawshawski, the brainy, tough female P.I. created by Sara Paretsky. V.I. is a smart-aleck, avowed feminist, and unabashed supporter of the Second Amendment, and she has a deep knowledge of and passion for the city of Chicago. In Paretsky’s later novels, V.I. is getting older, but she’s not always getting wiser: although she’s increasingly mindful of her work’s physical toll, she can still be stunningly impulsive and reckless.

Blacklist was published in 2003, but I somehow didn’t get around to reading it until late last year. What a pleasant surprise to discover that archives and records occupy a central position within the narrative! All of a sudden, I understood exactly why Paretsky, who has a Ph.D. in American history, was the keynote speaker at the Midwest Archives Conference when it met in Chicago a few years ago.

The mystery begins when Darraugh Graham, a flinty corporate chieftain for whom V.I. has long conducted background checks and investigated employee malfeasance, needs help with a family matter. His elderly mother, Geraldine Taverner Graham, has moved into a posh senior apartment that has a perfect view of the now-vacant family mansion. She’s convinced that people are moving about the property at night, but the police in the tony exurb of New Solvay don’t believe her. Darraugh wants V.I. to check out the place and ease his mother’s mind.

After visiting the Chicago Historical Society and quickly researching the Graham family’s history, V.I. pays a nighttime visit to the mansion and finds that she is not alone: a scared but defiant teenaged girl runs away from V.I. after the two exchange a few words. V.I. gives chase, but trips and falls into a brackish koi pond (Paretsky has a habit of making V.I. jump or fall into disgusting bodies of water) and discovers that the overgrown weeds in the pond are hiding a corpse.

V.I. discovers that the dead man is Marc Whitby, a journalist who had been researching Kylie Ballantine, a pioneering African-American dancer and educator. In the 1950s, Ballantine had been a close friend of Calvin Bayard, a publisher and civil rights activist V.I. has revered since her college days. V.I. also tracks down the girl -- Bayard’s granddaughter Catherine, who may or may not be hiding Benjamin Sadawi, a young Egyptian who worked in her elite private school’s cafeteria and is suspected of being a terrorist.

V.I.’s investigation of Whitby’s death propels her to focus ever more closely upon the connections between Ballantine and the Bayard, Graham, and Taverner families. She finds clues in papers held by Whitby and various members of the Graham, Taverner, and Bayard families, the Vivian Harsh Collection at the Chicago Public Library, and the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center. Sifting through a large collection at the latter repository, she discovers a manuscript that allows her to untangle the knot of illicit romance, leftist politics, and anti-communism that bound the families together in the 1950s and continues to do so -- despite individual family members’ concerted efforts to break free -- fifty years later.

V.I.’s research leads her to Whitby’s killer, who is guilty of other crimes. She also finds Sadawi, who is unwittingly caught up in the Bayard, Graham, and Taverner families' shared history. However, she ultimately learns, much to her dismay, that the killer may evade justice and that the authorities are so convinced that Sadawi is a terrorist that they have no interest in the facts of his case. That a handful of Bayards, Grahams, and Taverners finally start to make peace with their past is scant consolation.

Paretsky is a sharp critic of the sense of entitlement that all too often accompanies wealth and privilege -- and the narcissism that is typically part and parcel of adolescence. She also sees distinct parallels between the McCarthyism of the 1950s and the anti-terrorist fervor of the 2000s, and Blacklist consistently underscores how self-righteousness and panic can trump common sense and wreck the lives of flawed but fundamentally decent people. Some readers might sharply differ with Paretsky’s politics, and even those who fundamentally agree with her might be happier if she had put a little less effort into polemicizing and a little more effort into fleshing out some of the minor characters. Those who love sprawling mysteries solved by smart, cynical detectives ought to enjoy Blacklist nonetheless.

Mystery-loving archivists ought to find Blacklist particularly rewarding. Paretsky clearly understands the value of archives and the everyday treasures they hold, and the archivists who appear at the margins of the narrative are uniformly knowledgeable and helpful; one suspects that they are modeled on the real-life archivists she thanks in the book’s acknowledgments. Archivists will cringe at the manner in which V.I. handles historical records, but they otherwise ought to be quite pleased by the way in which Paretsky highlights archives, records, and the continuing relevance of the past. What’s not to love about a mystery in which all of the biggest clues concerning murders and betrayals -- old and new -- are found within the archival record?

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