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Review: ‘Breakdown’ by Sara Paretsky

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Book signing

Chicago author Sara Paretsky will discuss and sign Breakdown during a V.I. Warshawski 30th anniversary party, 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark; and at 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 55 Old Orchard Center, Skokie.

Updated: February 10, 2012 8:07AM

With a satisfying array of baddies and the same comfortable heroes, Sara Paretsky gives her fans all they could ask for and everything they should expect.

For the 15th outing of her beloved V.I. Warshawski character, Paretsky is not about to take any chances. In Breakdown (Putnam, $26.95), her tried and true, interchangeable lineup of characters many readers have spent the past 30 years following, is making its valiant appearance yet again.

Breakdown sports a palette not of half-tones, but of old-fashioned black-and-white, from frontispiece to endpapers. A right-wing talk show host, a liberal Senate hopeful and a beneficent billionaire with the requisite super-secret secret he forces himself to protect, all breezily animate this new Warshawski mystery. Add to these a group of bored and easily amused teen and pre-teen girls for Warshawski to save, and the feeling of tucking into the familiar narrative of an Agatha Christie story from a bygone age floods over the pages — though there is no more tea for vicar, as there are quite a few modern doohickeys in this book. After all, this novel is set in gritty (cough) Chicago, and yes, vampires are mentioned — and social media!

Warshawski finds the girls playing their version of “I believe in Mary Worth” in a cemetery, mere feet away from a freshly dead man splayed on top of a crypt, who Warshawski later finds out was a corrupt private detective. News of two of the girls — the daughter of Sophy Durango, a liberal U.S. Senate candidate, and the granddaughter of Chaim Salanter, a wealthy Jewish businessman linked to Durango’s campaign — intensifies an already anti-Semitic and racist political race. In the meantime, bigoted TV host Wade Lawlor attempts to ruin Durango’s campaign chances and defame Salanter with rumors surrounding his behavior under the Nazis. Good thing V.I. Warshawski is there to put together all the pieces and find the bad guys.

The popularity and charm of V.I. Warshawski continue in this new novel, but chucking into these cookie-cutter stories a few nods to recent events, without dramatically transforming the woman over all this time, makes this book a pastime when once they were considered required reading. Breakdown reads like fanatic literature, but the fan in this case is the original author, who may be on cruise control when it comes to the caretaking of a groundbreaking character. Go get the book if you want a quick Sunday afternoon read and to luxuriate in your pal Victoria Iphigenia’s wardrobe and goblet count, and by all means do give Paretsky her due for creating a PI who finally got to be a professional. She deserved it.

M.E. Collins is a Chicago freelance writer.

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