Efficient, entertaining but not literary enough

Fire Sale by Sara Paretsky 2005 French title: Chicago, banlieue sud.

Paretsky_ChicagoFire Sale is the 13th volume of the V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky. The heroin, Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is a private detective who grew up in the poor neighbourhood of the South of Chicago. She has left her past behind but this volume leads her there. It starts with a call from her former basketball coach Mary Ann Farlane. Coach Farlane is fighting cancer and she needs someone to coach the girls basketball team at the highschool Bertha Palmer. Victoria accepts reluctantly, out of respect for the coach who won her a scholarship to college and a ticket out of Chicago South. She’s not keen on walking that memory lane and she doesn’t have a lot of free time for voluntary work between her PI agency, her clients and her boyfriend Morrell who’s slowly recovering from an injury. He took a bullet when he was in Afghanistan as a journalist.

Victoria starts training the girls and slowly gets to know them, especially Celine, Josie and April. She knows the neighborhood and the unwritten social rules to respect. She knows the area, the gangs, all the street culture she needs to lead these girls. One day Josie comes to her after the session and asks her to meet with her mother Rose. She has troubles at work and would need a PI’s advice. Victoria doesn’t have time for a pro bono case on top of the coaching hours but doesn’t want to let Josie down. She meets with Rose who works at Fly the Flag, a company specialized in sewing flags. Rose explains that the workshop has been sabotaged and she worries about the company; they pay well (13$ per hour) and she needs her job to support her family.

Victoria doesn’t have the heart to refuse the case coming from a woman who struggles to raise her four children and grand-daughter. This case will make Victoria renew with her past.

Her personal life mingles with her professional one as Marcena Love, one of Morrell’s oldest journalist friends stays with him to write an article for the Guardian about the hidden face of America. Victoria feels obliged to take Marcena to Chicago South where she can find relevant material for her article. Marcena is gorgeous, confident and an excellent journalist. Victoria feels insecure when she’s with her since Marcena seems to suck all the attention in a room. She also gets involved with some inhabitants of the neighborhood and has a fling with one of Victoria’s former acquaintances who is also April’s married father.

Victoria will investigate the incidents at Fly the Flag and it becomes a serious case when the workshop burns out after an arson, killing its owner Frank Zamar. Meanwhile, Victoria also decides to visit the major companies settled in Chicago South to find sponsors for the basketball team. Her objective is to get enough money to pay a part-time coach for the team and stop her work there. This is how she meets with the Bysen family, owner of the By-Smart empire, a competitor of Wal Mart. It is involved in Chicago South as the main employer but also through the youngest son of the family, Billy, who is in an exchange program between his church and the one led by the charismatic Father Andres in Chicago South. That’s the church where Josie and Rose go.

Efficient is the best adjective to describe Fire Sale. It’s a page turner with enough action to make you keep on reading and it’s not necessary to read the previous volumes to read this one. It’s like a TV series. Sara Paretsky describes the social misery of Chicago South where steel industries used to provide the population with good jobs. Now the biggest employer is By-Smart and its jobs paid $7 per hour. She pictures the difficulties of the poor families and their struggle to support a family with such a low salary. She points out the difficulties of the high school Bertha Palmer, the lack of public money. The basketball team doesn’t have enough balls for training and the gym and locker rooms are not maintained. We find what we expect in poor neighborhoods: high unemployment, violence, parents who struggle to make ends meet, drugs and criminality. What’s different from Europe and therefore for me typically American is health insurance problems, teen pregnancies and Christian activists.

That’s what Sara Paretsky does well and it made me eager to know the ending. The problem is that it’s been done before, and better done. Her style is…efficient but I came to expect more of crime fiction. I’ve read it in French and it sounded flat. It lacks literary luster, a unique view on the events and the neighborhood, inventive sentences. Victoria’s turmoil about her past, her feelings for Morrell and Marcena deserved a deeper exploration. It lacks depth and I missed that additional psychology and style that changes good old crime fiction into literary crime fiction.

Good for beach and public transport but not much more.

  1. August 8, 2014 at 2:29 am

    I know people who are ardent fans of this author, but for some reason, I’ve never been interested in reading of her books. She’s very popular here.

    There are so many different types of crime books out there, and I think people like the predictability (knowing what they are going to get) with some authors.

    • August 9, 2014 at 4:42 am

      I was interested in the Chicago setting.
      She tries something interesting but I think it’s been written to quickly. I can feel the schedule of a publisher and writing books as a job and not as an art. It’s fine with me as long as the author doesn’t think they are the new Chandler but it’s not want I want to read.
      That said, we need these writers as a step to something else (we’ve all started with easy reads) and if they keep the pleasure of reading alive for their readership, it’s good too.

  2. August 8, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Maybe this book has been done and done better before but I think Paretsky is important because she was one of the first to have a tough female PI. Maybe her first books were better? On the other hand she’s never been famous for being literary I think. I have her first novel here and will read it sooner or later.

    • August 9, 2014 at 4:37 am

      I prefer Kay Scarpetta or Barbara Havers to V.I. Warshawski and I think the series started around the same time. Sure she’s a tough P.I. character but something is missing in the way the investigation is done. It’s a bit too easy to be true. She always happens to be at the right place at the right moment to find clues and go further. The book is more than 500 pages long and she didn’t find space or time to develop the characters.
      The style is sloppy compared to E. George or P. Cornwell or maybe it’s been too long since I’ve read them and I’d have the same reaction to them now and find them not literary enough. I’ve been spoiled by Chandler and OK it’s not fair to compare a writer to him. So let’s say that compared to Salem, Kotzwinkle or Manchette, she’s lacking.

      Perhaps you’re right, the first volumes were better.

      • August 9, 2014 at 7:33 am

        I know she’s one of Litlove’s favourites, so I really suspect the older books are better. This sounds like it was shoddily written. Why don’t they give up their series when they are tired of it? And 500 pages is long when it’s not that good. I’ll read the first and then we can compare notes. :)

        • August 13, 2014 at 3:12 am

          I trust Litlove’s tastes in books. So the first novels are probably better.

          Referring to your initial comment about VI being the first tough female PI, I think female PIs will have reached equality with male PIs when they have a dotting husband at home, working too and helping with the kids. :-) VI has no family life, which conveys the idea that a woman who plays on “male” territory can’t have it all. I disagree with this vision.

  3. August 8, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    Paretsky is important in the genre as Caroline says, and clearly it’s a page turner from your billet, but like you I look for something slightly different in my crime. Not every writer is for every reader, and I strongly suspect my reaction would be the same as yours. Hope your next book works out better for you.

    • August 9, 2014 at 4:28 am

      Maybe Caroline is right and the first ones are better. Sometimes writers get too comfortable when they write series. I had more fun reading the crazy Gendron than this one but it was still a good page turner. (perfect for long train or plane travels)

    • August 9, 2014 at 6:02 pm

      Crime genre is a huge umbrella term. Many people, when they hear I like crime, lend me a book that they’ve loved, and that I wouldn’t pick up. It’s not a one-size fits all, so that makes it hard to buy a crime novel for another reader unless you have a sense of who that person already reads.

      • leroyhunter
        August 11, 2014 at 12:45 pm

        Totally true Guy. My local bookshop has an enormous crime section, at least 70% of which I always ignore.

        I remember an American friend of my parents trying to interest me in Paretsky and Ngaio Marsh when I was younger: no deal.

      • August 13, 2014 at 3:13 am

        You’re right. Publishers are a good hint. I don’t usually read books published by Pocket. It should have been a warning.

  4. August 10, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Nice review, Emma! Nice to know that you liked the book as a page turner, but sorry to know that you didn’t like it as much as you had hoped too. I haven’t read Sara Paretsky yet, but I remember P.D.James mentioning her in her book ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ (which is a short, subjective history of detective fiction.) I hope you like your next book more.

    • August 13, 2014 at 3:14 am

      Paretsky is not a writer I’ll explore further.
      What I read now is fantastic, even better than expected.

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