by Alice K. Boatwright
When I was 15 years old I read a book called The Moonspinners and began a love affair with the books of Mary Stewart. I read every one of her books over the course of that summer, captivated not by the mystery or the romance, but the heroines who told the stories.
Most of them, for example, were about 21, the age I would have liked to be. They were pretty, of course, but they were also independent. They were on their own in the world (frequently orphans -- another state I thought I would prefer) and loved it. They had interesting jobs and no money problems. They travelled freely about the world, were excellent drivers, could speak several languages. They never got lost. They were brave and strong and solved their own problems. Two men fell in love with them -- one good, one bad -- and they always chose the right one in the end. These books ended with the focus on romance, but that was just a convention. There was no other way to end a woman's story in those days.
Which brings me to today and why I love V.I. Warshawski.
When I discovered V.I., the same thing happened. I simply had to read everything written about her.
V.I. Warshawski is a private eye who makes herself known to the world through the books of Chicago writer Sara Paretsky. She is a member of the school of hard-boiled detectives and tells her story in a terse prose that at first makes you think of Humphrey Bogart in drag. But you soon forget Humphrey Bogart, because V.I. is all woman and she's a woman of our time. Or at least my time.
In the first place, V.I. is of an age when woman used to stop appearing in print -- her late 30s. She's divorced, lives alone, has no kids. Thus she has broken the mold of conventional success for women, as many of us have, whether we planned to or not. Her relatives despair of her, but she's not really unhappy.
As it is for us, the focus of V.I.'s life is her work. She's an attorney by education, a P.I. by choice. She works for herself because she can't stand having a boss, following a set schedule, or putting on pantyhose every day. The price she pays for her freedom is that she can't always pay her bills, her office is in a dumpy building, and her car is a wreck.
Not that V.I. worries. She just throws the bills away until they come the third time -- and by then a job has always come in that provides the needed cash.
There are other things V.I. doesn't worry about. Her age, men, having children, retirement, housekeeping, laundry, whether there's food in the house, or what she's going to wear.
If she didn't at least worry about her weight, I'm not sure I could identify with her. She does. Or rather, she watches her weight and carefully balances meals of corned beef sandwiches eaten on the run with yogurt eaten while driving her car down the expressway. She also runs to stay fit and, when someone puts her on hold, she does leg lifts. Really. A P.I. has to be in good shape.
Like those younger Mary Stewart heroines, V.I. does a lot of things I'd like to do more of. She never makes her bed. She eats standing up. She's extremely rude -- even violent -- to people who cross her. And when she's mad she drives her car like a weapon, even though her good sense tells her she shouldn't.
Of course she has her obsessions. Her mother, for example, is never far from her mind. She is haunted by dreams and memories of Gabriella, who died when she was 15. (Perfect timing.) In almost every adventure V.I.'s violent lifestyle nearly destroys the ruby glass goblets her mother carefully carried from Italy when she came to the United States as a young girl. These sacred totems survive fire and numerous ransackings, just as the repertoire of arias her mother taught her helps her unwind after doing second story work in the middle of the night.
Because as casual as V.I. is, she knows what's important. Fine wines, Italian pumps, fresh pasta, women friends, a good set of pick locks, and justice for the poor. She's lived to be 39 because she remembers to check under her hood for bombs. It must be some kind of statement about the world today that I relate to this so completely.
As a person who grew up in the 1970s, V.I. also has nostalgic memories of her days as an anti-war activist and of the beginnings of the women's movement. One thing I'd like to ask her, though, is, given her tough stance against the world, why does she call herself Miss Warshawski?
I'm not complaining, I just wonder about it. In V.I.'s case, it almost seems like the word is reinvested with new meaning. Yes: I am single. Yes: I am alone. Yes: I am myself.
Not that there aren't men in her life. She occasionally comes across one who interests her enough to bring him home to her unmade bed. And sometimes they try to become allies, even friends, but V.I. is a little too crusty to let a man get too close. Men are nice, fun, useful, interesting -- but sooner or later they try to fence you in, and V.I. will not be fenced. She even has trouble thanking people who save her life, like her adoring downstairs neighbor, Mr. Contreras.
No, when V.I. needs comfort, it's her women friends that she turns to. Or friend, I should say. Really, she only has one. A doctor named Lotte Herschel who patches her up, gives her brandy, food, a safe bed, a hot bath, and solid old-fashioned European advice.
V.I. loves Lotte and is not ashamed to say so. It's not that she's uncaring or incapable of love. It's just that she's so busy being herself, solving the problems that circumstances force on her, she doesn't have time for other people. She couldn't even keep a dog if Mr. Contreras didn't share it with her.
There are times when I want to say, come on, V.I., lighten up. Go to the grocery. Get some food in the house, for chrissake. You can't live on hot baths, scotch, and peanut butter.
But then I'm not a private eye. I don't carry a gun. I've never been beaten up, had my throat slashed, or my house set on fire. I don't even live in Chicago, where the weather is mean and the traffic is heavy.
I'm just a reader. Hooked. Wondering how our story will turn out.