Fire Sale By Sara Paretsky

Counting the cost of a sinister superstore
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The Independent Culture

It's almost 25 years since Sara Paretsky introduced Chicago-based private eye VI Warshawski in Indemnity Only, a novel whose influence was both instant and constant. Independent, intelligent, tenacious, never at a loss for the smart-mouthed response, VI was precisely the counterweight that women needed to hold the serious dialectic of the time in equipoise.

Paretsky brought politics to the crime novel in a way that few writers since Chandler and Hammett had achieved. Like them, hers are the politics of the barricades and the barrios, not the bar-room. But with Paretsky, for the first time, the abuses that fuelled the fiction went beyond social politics and into feminism.

Warshawski wasn't the first feminist private eye, but she was the first to be unapologetic about her anger and desire to put the world to rights. Paretsky put fire in her eyes and in her belly and in the process she inspired a generation of women crime writers. But her tendency to take on the sacred cows of the American dream makes many of her compatriots nervous, which explains why she is more respected in Europe than in her own country.

Recent novels have tackled the horrors of the US penal system and the outrages the Patriot Act has trailed in its wake. This time, the target Paretsky has in her sights is the commercial conglomerate liberals love to loathe, the Tesco of America, Walmart. Paretsky tackles the giant corporation, thinly disguised as By-Smart, in a form both more engaging and more even-handed than Robert Greenwald's documentary, The High Cost of Low Price. More engaging because we have a protagonist we can empathise with; more even-handed, because in a novel, dialogue imposes an on-the-spot right of reply.

The way into the confrontation comes via an unsentimental journey into Warshawski's past. Loyalty is her prime virtue, and it overcomes her reluctance to return to her South Side alma mater to stand in for her former basketball coach, now terminally ill. The old working-class community has been shattered by the closure of the steel mills and the outsourcing of jobs to the new tiger economies of the East. Buffeted by the clash between her memories and new realities, she struggles to find a way to inspire her young players as she herself was inspired.

It's a thankless task, but Warshawski is doggedly determined. The search for sponsorship takes her into the empire of By-Smart. Run as their fiefdom by the Byson clan, By-Smart exemplifies the worst employment practices the law allows and enforces its policies with draconian penalties for workers who don't toe the line. The pull of loyalty also drags her into investigating a campaign of vandalism and aggravation against a local factory where the owner is struggling to dance to By-Smart's tune.

As the story unfolds, Paretsky loads more flammable material into the volatile mix - forbidden love, corporate greed, jealousy, avarice and shadows from her past. Inevitably, the slow burn bursts into life and Warshawski finds herself at the heart of a life-threatening inferno.

Paretsky always forces her readers to think. But Fire Sale is no dry polemic; it's a human story that ratchets up the tension, leaving little space for reflection until the fire dies down and we contemplate the glowing embers. At its best, crime fiction illuminates the society we live in, and Sara Paretsky proves yet again that she is one of the genre's most significant practitioners.

Val McDermid's latest novel is 'The Grave Tattoo' (HarperCollins)

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