Crimes of a century: Sara Paretsky on fiction, power and the open case of race in America

Creator of feminist sleuth VI Warshawski, Sara Paretsky soon picked up the trail of her Chicago neighbour, Barack Obama
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The Independent Culture

When Barack Obama was not yet the President of the United States but just another neighbour in Sara Paretsky's leafy corner of Chicago, she would glimpse the handsomely gangly figure of the young attorney tripping round the block, stopping for friendly chats here, idle shakes of the hand there.

After he embarked on his campaign for an Illinois Senate seat in 2004, her admiration turned into an unshakeable hunch - emanating more from womanly instinct than forensic detective work - that this "beautiful" man could attract the not-so-insignificant vote of her state's "soccer moms", if not the prune-faced majority who had already written him off as a "black guy with a weird name."

"I was one of the first people to back his Senate campaign," she says. "David Axelrod [now his senior adviser] held a fundraiser to put the arm on all of Chicago's wealthy Democrats. He invited everyone to his apartment, overlooking Lake Michigan, and all of rich Chicago society thought 'no-one's going to vote for this black guy with the weird name'. But I was sure as soon as the soccer moms see this guy, they'll vote for him... He was so beautiful." Chicago's doubting elite was proved wrong, Paretsky right. "He won the primary, like that, click," she says, recalling the victory with a delicate lick of the lips.

VI Warshawski, Paretsky's fictive feminist PI who in 1982 burst into the detective genre to subvert its patriarchal norms, would surely be proud. As a long-standing admirer of the President, perhaps it is no surprise that Paretsky features Obama in her latest novel, Hardball (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99) - albeit more as political wallpaper than as a central subject.

The story is a nostalgic one, revolving around the activism of Martin Luther King, in a return to the Chicago of 1966 and the bloody Marquette Park riots which erupted that year. King, despite having been granted police protection, was struck by bottles hurled by a snarling white crowd, who were trying to stop the civil rights march for non-segregated housing.

King himself barely features in the book. But his presence in Chicago ignites a terrible face-off between the resentful white community, activists, black street gangs who appointed themselves as King's protectors, and the questionable allegience of the state police. Warshawski's latest assignment leads her to excavate this turbulent moment in American civil-rights history after an elderly black woman asks her to find her son, whose sudden disappearance after the Marquette riots has to this day remained unsolved.

Obama is a shadow but a significant one, one whose photograph has already been hung next to the portraits of older heroes in the drawing rooms of the black families Warshawski visits. Paretsky suggests the timing of the book - finished in the final week of the presidential campaign - leaves it holding its breath, yet she still wanted to place Obama as a symbol of hope at the back of her story. "It was touch-and-go whether he would win. But I felt he was iconic. I was 13 when John F Kennedy was elected and there was that sense of a new generation, a new energy that Barack Obama embodied again."

The roots of Paretsky's 16th novel, and 13th in the Warshawski series, lie in a real-life case that has rumbled on in Chicago for two decades. The Burge case (named after detective Jon Burge, currently embroiled in the Federal courts for perjury), has become a shameful reference-point for endemic police corruption in the city.

A teenager, Joseph Lopez, was arrested in July 2000 without a warrant for the murder of a 12-year-old, and held for four days in an interrogation room, handcuffed to the wall for most of that time. Under these conditions, Lopez falsely confessed, but was later released when the real culprit was arrested. He sued the police and a subsequent inquiry uncovered a 20-year pattern within Chicago's police department of arresting young black men without a warrant in cases involving violent crimes, and detaining them illegally.

This case was one inspiration, she says, but Paretsky also used her own life's topography - her first few years in her adoptive city of Chicago as a student community-service worker - to give her crime fiction a typically politicised hard edge. The book was spawned from an essay she wrote for her 2007 non-fiction collection, Writing in an Age of Silence (Verso), "The King and I". It reflected on her community service of 1966 and her permanent return to the city, from her Kansas hometown, two years later, to work as a secretary. Later she completing a PhD at the University of Chicago.

The first trip as a student "changed my life", she wrote in "The King and I": "I feel a fierce nostalgia for the sixties, a nostalgia like an insatiable hunger. Out on the streets, these were some of the ugliest times in American history, racism made naked for the whole country, indeed the whole world, to see. In the courts and the White House, these were some of the noblest moments. The President... speaking to the nation, talked about the centuries of harm white Americans had committed against black Americans."

Returning to that time, her aim was to view it in the context of what happened to Chicago, and America, in the intervening 40 years. There have been gains yet there is still much to be fought for, she says, with the stridency of a diehard campaigner. There's the Republican hate machine that has left Obama's adminstration limping ("The opposition to him has a very racist edge"), her city's infamous corruption ("29 aldermen are in prison, three recent governors are also there") an iniquitious health care system ("free health care ought to be a slam dunk") and Chicago's enduring cultural segregation, with the black community forming a dangerously impoverished enclave in the South Side.

This latter issue appears to rankle most. "I have African American friends in the city who have experienced racism...The teenage son of John Hope Franklin [an eminent scholar of African American history]who lives near me was questioned by the police. What was a black teenager doing in a white neighbourhood?" She tells another story of a black friend who moved from the South Side to a mixed neighbourhood but "moved back to the South Side because she felt like a giraffe in a zoo."

This trope is one she has employed to describe herself and her intellectual Jewish family, living in the midst of screaming white Republicanism in Kansas. In the city of Lawrence, her father, a microbiologist and native New Yorker, found a job at the university. The most desirable residential areas in Kansas were still barred to African Americans and Jews while Paretsky was growing up. Reflecting on her outsider status in this all-white stronghold, in which her family could never have been white enough, she has written that "We were like giraffes, an oddity that inspired staring."

It is a world she describes vividly in the partly autobiographical novel Bleeding Kansas, which also, painfully, recalls her parents' unravelling relationship and her father's drinking. She bills her former self as something of a dumpy, overlooked teenager, wholly unrecognisable from the pin-thin, stylishly dressed 62-year-old today. The outside, she says, drawing attention to the soft velvet fabrics, pretty neckerchief and hues of green and gold, is meant to be deceptively, perhaps even disarmingly "feminine". "People point out that Warshawski's edgier than almost any other woman in fiction, and I think I'm edgier than most other women. I dress in this soft kind of way, I come in wearing soft colours with my Victorian face... and then I deck them."

There is comedy in this statement, but anger too. As an ardent, self-proclaimed second-wave feminist, much of this outrage is ideological, though one cannot but wonder how much stems from what appears to have been a debilitatingly male-dominated upbringing. Her parents paid for all four of her brothers' education but not their only daughter's schooling; she was expected to be the care-giver, and she remembers her father wearing a badge calling for the repeal of the 19th ammendment, which gave suffrage to American women in 1920.

Yet she says the anger that galvanised her writing in the 1980s came not from personal history but from her disgust at the sexist clichés within the American noir tradition, almost always featuring laconic men with a hardwired distrust of the pouting vamps they meet.

She had read crime fiction since her teenage years and "one of the things that began to trouble me was that the women... especially in American noir were either victims or vamps. The sexually active ones were evil, and the sexually chaste ones good but incapable."

She wrote an angry riposte to this tradition, and the result was Indemnity Only, which readers around the world welcomed – in spite of being told by New York publishers that the PI novel was long dead, and especially one that based itself in the "flyover" city of Chicago. "It was something I was doing from anger at the way women were presented in fiction, and not just crime fiction. I thought if I ever write a novel, I want to turn the tables on that tradition."

Turn the tables she did, so well in fact, that she has redefined the genre, with what detective novelist Val McDermid calls the "transgressive" central character who is "discounted by society". She won the Crime Writers Association's Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 2006.

So 13 Warshawski novels later, is Paretsky still angry? Apparently so. "When I look at the younger generation of women especially in the United States and their reproduction rights, with not enough access to abortion, then I think 'why is it up to me to keep fighting this battle?' I have been doing this since the 1970s. It's time for the younger generation to step up. " There is a pause, and a moment when she contemplates her increasing mellowness with age: the fear that Warshawski may have lost some of her edge over the years. But in the next breath, she is back on the warpath.

"I went to Nashville, Tennessee, not long ago, and I saw Jesus billboards everywhere alongside billboards for Hooters Clubs (a franchise which trades on its waitresses' breasts) and it seemed to be a place about the sin of abortion and Hooters. It makes me furious and baffled at the same time."

So furious in fact, that the experience gave grist to her mill. Her next novel, already written and part of the Warshawski series, focuses on the female body. "It's going to be a kind of Pride and Prejudice with nudity." Tennessee, and Hooters, may be in for a bumpy ride.

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