Efficient, entertaining but not literary enough
Fire Sale by Sara Paretsky 2005 French title: Chicago, banlieue sud.
Fire 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.