Book Of A Lifetime: Indemnity Only, By Sara Paretsky

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The Independent Culture

Books have shaped my life in more ways that I can explain. There are some key milestones that will always stand proud of the rest: the moment, reading a Chalet School book, when I understood that being a writer was a proper job; falling in love with crime fiction when I read my first Miss Marple at the age of eight or nine; the perennial joy of Treasure Island, with its perfect blend of character, plot, setting and good writing, not to mention the ending that leaves space for the reader's imagination; and plunging headlong into another way of looking at the world thanks to Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. But if I had to point to one book that had irrevocably changed my future, I would have to settle on Sara Paretsky's Indemnity Only.

It's the novel that unleashes her Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski and it was an epiphany for me. She wasn't the first of the new wave of feminist detectives, but she was the one who stirred my imagination.

When Indemnity Only was published in America in 1982, a friend sent it to me because she thought I'd enjoy it. She was right. I was entranced by V.I. Warshawski, a woman with a brain and a sense of humour, a woman who was prepared to take a stand for the individual against the monoliths, a courageous fighter for the weak against the strong. I liked that the book had an urban setting and contained the kind of characters and experience that I could make sense of.

At the time, I had been trying to write fiction and failing. I'd come round to the idea of writing a crime novel, because I'd always enjoyed reading mysteries and I thought I had a sense of how they worked. But back then in the early 1980s, the only options in the British crime novel seemed to be the police procedural and the village mystery. And the detectives were either men or elderly spinsters.

I knew I didn't know enough about the workings of the police to write with confidence about their activities. I didn't realise then that most of what appeared in detective novels was fictional in every possible sense and that the real procedures bore little relation to the workings of Morse, Gideon or Wexford. Having grown up in a Scottish mining community, I had no direct knowledge of English village life.

We didn't have retired colonels or spinsters with herbaceous borders. Hell, we didn't even have vicars. It took Sara Paretsky to show me that there was another set of options out there. I could try to create an independent female sleuth whose politics informed the choices she made.

And I could aim to write a complex, knotty plot like Paretsky, where secrets and lies twisted round each other in a labyrinth of doubt and fear. I've followed V.I. Warshawski ever since. And thanks to Indemnity Only, I've had a career in writing that I could never have imagined. Now there's a life-changing book.

Val McDermid's 'Fever of the Bone' is published by Little, Brown