Sara Paretsky has written twenty-two novels, one autobiography, one e-book and two story collections since 1982. In that body of work, only two of the novels did not contain her female private eye, V. I. Warshawski. Writing in a time when women mystery writers were not common, she created Sisters in Crime, a worldwide organization to support women crime writers, which earned her Ms. Magazine’s 1987 Woman of the Year Award. She is a two-time Anthony Award nominee for best novel (“Killing Orders” and “Blood Shot”), Anthony Award winner for best story collection (“A Woman’s Eye”), and recipient of the Anthony Lifetime Achievement award. She earned a Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement as well, and a Gold Dagger Award for “Blacklist” from the Crime Writers’ Association. She is the winner of the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. With all these awards, it is easy to call her the Agatha Christie of Chicago. Days before the release of her latest collection of stories, we conversed via Zoom.
Let’s talk about your book coming out June 30, “Love and Other Crimes.”
That was fun. Not everything I write is fun. But, I had a really good time with that one. I had wanted to [publish] my V.I. stories. The ones that I’d written through the mid-nineties were published in “Windy City Blues,” but I kept writing short stories and not always about V.I. I wanted to collect them in an anthology. I self-published some of them through Lulu, but William Morrow was willing to bring out the whole collection.
The title story is new for the collection. I grew up with a family not unlike the Litvak family in “Love and Other Crimes.” They clung together like glue, they were highly dysfunctional, but they all stood up for each other. I just had so much fun imagining what a family like that, how they would react as adults if one of them got into hot water. And so I had a very fun time creating them, so much so that the book I’ve started working on, the one that I keep throwing out and restarting because the world is changing in such unexpected ways, making my work irrelevant, at the end of every week, my work for the week now ending has becomes irrelevant… But the Litvak family are so dear to me they’re playing a major role in the new book.
Anything else to say about this new book?
With “Love and Other Crimes,” which I am publishing on June 30, I just want to say that it really is a collection of stories that runs the gamut of love: love of family or love of pets or love of money. My favorite personal story in the collection is called “Miss Bianca.” Actually, there are several stories in the collection that I like a lot, but “Miss Bianca” was sparked by my father. He was a cell biologist who worked on a microorganism that back in the Cold War days the Russians and the Americans both thought had potential as a biological weapon. He was sent to a conference in Czechoslovakia where the Soviets had a big biological weapons lab. He persuaded one of the technicians, and I don’t know how he did it, it was not something he ever talked about, to inject him, inoculate him with the organism, which is halfway between a virus and a bacterium, so it is RNA with a fractured piece of DNA. It can’t quite replicate outside, never mind, we all have RNA on the brain these days because of COVID. But he had himself inoculated with it to bring it back to study it in his lab. It is a disease carried by tick bites, so he wasn’t endangering the people around him unless they had fleas or ticks on the plane. He got off the plane in Kansas City with a fever of 104 degrees but he wouldn’t start antibiotics until his tech had come and drawn blood from him to culture. That story just boggles my mind. I think my father was, in many ways, he was a lunatic, certifiable, and I don’t know if this was a sign of his insanity, bravery or what. But the story [“Miss Bianca”] is told from the standpoint of a ten-year-old girl, whose mother is the secretary to this scientist, and I think it brought me back to my childhood and the lab in Kansas where my brothers and I would go after school and the graduate students would feed us chocolate cake. [laughs] That is one of the stories in the collection that I just feel good about.
After this collection, will there be a new direction in your writing?
Well, you know, I had been feeling that I should create new characters, besides V.I., but as I say in the notes of “Love and Other Crimes,” I tried creating two new characters, one a Chicago police detective or police officer, one a forensic engineer and although the short stories were technically interesting to write, the characters just didn’t come to life for me the way that V.I. did. I look at careers of people like Michael Connelly or Ian Rankin and think “Oh yes, well, a second series,”but it just didn’t jell for me.
You have an advanced degree in history. Would you ever write historical fiction?
I’m not keen on historical fiction with real characters, although the exception is Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy; I’m not comfortable with imagining that you know how a real person thought and felt. My other problem with historical novels is that they are overdetermined. You know that it has to end in the way that the historical character ended. So I am not reading the third Mantel novel, the fictionalized account about Thomas Cromwell, because I know that he will get his head chopped off and I can’t bear it.
But I would certainly write a book set in the period of the anti-slavery movement, specifically the immigration to Kansas to make it come into the Union as a free state. I’ve done some reading, some research. I think having this history training also is a handicap because I’m aware of how much detail you have to master in order to bring a historical period convincingly to life. So I’ll keep reading diaries and memoirs, but I work slowly, and I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to pull it together.
Do you think Chicago is as colorful as it used to be?
See, I didn’t grow up here, so I don’t have that native sense of the city. I think that the flight to the suburbs of a lot of white ethnic groups took away a lot of the character of city neighborhoods, and while I welcome the end of segregation—not that we really have ended segregated housing in the city, it’s highly problematic—I welcome the end of the written real estate covenants and many of the really vile laws and practices of the past century. Nonetheless, this city has lost some significant flavor from white people getting freaked out and running away. When I first came here, I worked at a program at Gage Park. It was mostly a Polish and Lithuanian neighborhood then, these were people that worked in the stockyards. There was fierce ethnic loyalty and ferocious racial prejudices and a lot of fighting went on, but at the same time you could go down the street, and there’d be a grocery store that had Polish or Lithuanian specialties in it. We miss a lot of that now.
I blame it on the advent of the supermarket, because before them, you used to go into the butcher shop, the bakery or the hardware store.
That’s exactly how I prefer to shop, I get a terrible sense of anomie and disorientation in big stores. I can’t go into a big-box store, it freaks me. The neon lights, the sterile air, and it’s so big you don’t know where anything is, you feel like you wandered underground into some cavern that you won’t ever get out of. [laughs]
Do you think Chicago still has interesting criminals?
Depends on what you mean by interesting. I think that as long as we have high-level white-collar crime, we will have interesting crimes and interesting criminals. I’ve never been particularly interested in street shootings, but they do a lot of damage to a lot of people. I think white-collar crime is more damaging because it causes widespread misery. I think of people like Charles Keating, whose bank was one of the savings and loans that defrauded people of their life savings [in the 1980s]. Ten-thousand old people lost their life savings. Some of them committed suicide and some went to prison for shoplifting. You know, that man got less punishment than an African American selling a couple of ounces of cocaine. For me that kind of crime is both more socially damaging and more interesting to write about just because of that, than street shootings.
Although I was thinking about Sue Grafton, she wrote wonderful stories about families, family secrets, family lies and the kind of crimes that get committed to protect those secrets. I don’t know why my own brain doesn’t go to those kind of things. Maybe before I’m eighty, I’ll get my brain retooled. [Paretsky runs her fingers through her hair and smiles broadly.]
I think your brain retools, because I’ve read your foreword in the book “Chicago Apartments” by Neil Harris.
Oh my god, yeah, my old dissertation advisor who was very kind to let me write for his book, it is a beautiful book.
Yes it is—and you did what many Chicagoans do, you go past these beautiful apartment buildings and you imagine living in that place. It’s such a Chicago thing to do, I was amazed that you didn’t grow up in Chicago!
Well, I married a man with three sons who were always violating curfew, so I got some of my city knowledge from them, going to find them.
Hats! Is it a sleuth’s trademark to wear a hat?
No! I just think I like wearing hats! I grew up in the fifties in a small town in Kansas. A woman didn’t go out in public without a hat and gloves. My mother hated every second of that dress code! When the sixties hit, she was the first to throw them all out. I don’t think it is an act of rebellion against my mother, I just missed hats. When Princess Diana brought them into vogue, there were a huge selection everywhere, that was when I started my collection, but after her death, the hat bars shut down again.
Do you watch any of the TV crime shows?
I confess, this is really embarrassing, but I am addicted to “NCIS: Los Angeles,” and it’s a ludicrous show in every way. Also, it exposes a culture of violence that I abhor. At the end, there is always a big shootout, and the four main characters, the team, they always walk away without any dirt on their clothes, any injuries, and that is so ludicrous, but I love it and I love them.
I think of Sam Hanna, played by LL Cool J. If I’m ever held up by a terrorist in an elevator, I will refuse to leave unless Sam Hanna comes to rescue me.
Then there is a very soft show that Patricia Barber, the jazz singer, recommended to me; it’s called “My Life is Murder.” It’s an Australian show. The main character is a woman, a detective who came into a small inheritance and she retires from the Melbourne Police. But she was their top investigator, so they still come and consult with her on crimes they can’t solve. I love seeing Melbourne. They put in subtitles because they think we can’t understand the Australian accent, which is very fun and the dynamics among the characters and the dialogue is really good. So that is another one I really love watching.
I don’t like “Chicago P.D.,” partly because I can’t stand the gravelly voice of the guy, the main one. [She imitates him and laughs.] I don’t know how much of a true Chicago detective he is because I haven’t watched one all the way through.
I also don’t like “Criminal Minds,” I think the dialogue is really terrible. Joe Mantegna, what were you thinking? The series that I found compelling but very hard to watch was “Homeland,” with Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes. The emotion in that was a little over the top sometimes, always authentic, but very stressful to be present for.
If Hollywood came to you and said, “We want you to write for one of these shows,” which would you want to write for? Or would you do a completely new one?
I don’t imagine things around the “NCIS” series, so I certainly wouldn’t want to do that, but I think my mind always goes to private eye shows as a writer, just because I have that kind of independent personality and I can’t really imagine a strong character playing well with others on the police team.
When you see a series, and I can’t think of one offhand, where there’s a maverick police officer, you know that that would not be tolerated in the district, that they, people, really have to be on the team, they can’t be going over their watch commander’s head. But still, I might want to take on something like “Chicago P.D.” and just force them to get details right.
Like when they go “the building is west on Halsted” do you go, “No! It’s not!”
That makes me think of one show that had such a short life, and I adored it! “Due South”—the Canadian show that was allegedly set in Chicago, and it was filmed in Toronto, or maybe it was filmed in Ottawa, and they made no pretense of getting it right. They would always start showing the El as it curves around the CNA building on Wabash. They made no pretense that they were really in Chicago. The one time they [set] a scene at O’Hare, they just used the Toronto airport.
A Canadian Mountie is punished for insubordination, he is sent to Chicago, and I loved it so much I actually bought the DVDs. My favorite character in it, and apparently the majority of viewer’s favorite, was the dog.
Oh yes, they named different people for different prime ministers. And this whole thing with the Mountie does not pay attention to any distractions, so he’s standing guard at the Canadian Embassy, some kids come and pour ice cream on him to see if they can get a rise out of him, he just stands immovable.
Then when the Mountie is trying to teach the Chicago detective that “an extra five seconds for politeness doesn’t hurt you,” because he is always saying “Thank you kindly” to people. And that has become part of my vocabulary, which drove my husband crazy. I was always saying “Thank you kindly,” so maybe I’d try to revive that show. The only episode they filmed in Chicago was one that was set in Ottawa, Canada, so they were deliberate in doing what they were doing with the streets, West Halsted and South Madison, so that is the part which is fun and funny about the show.
Tell me about when V.I. got the movie mistreatment along with Kathleen Turner.
It was a bad movie, but I owed a lot to Kathleen, because she wanted to play the character, and that was why the movie happened. She had hoped to make a whole series around it, but the movie was so bad that it died very quickly at the box office and killed any interest that Disney had in making a sequel. Unfortunately, at the time I signed the contract with Disney, the studio got worldwide rights in perpetuity. That has changed, the law changed, they are no longer able to do it. Unfortunately, I am bound by that contract, and they have no interest in doing anything else with it, which is a pity. Over the years, a lot of people have tried to do a joint venture. TNT went to them, I know, and different studios, different producers tried to get Disney interested in a joint project. They wouldn’t release the rights, but they also wouldn’t use the rights. So it’s the end of the story for any film adaptations. These days, I think, when will they ever make another movie about anything? With anyone? When will we be able to be back together in a setting where they can have scenes together?
In a perfect world, who would play V.I. in the ultimate V.I. movie?
In the ultimate movie, I would be V.I.! But I really do like Daniela Ruah, the woman on the “NCIS: Los Angeles” team. V.I. is a dark-haired, darker-skinned woman, her mother was from Italy and was Mediterranean looking. So Kathleen Turner, who would not color her hair or un-color it, physically didn’t look like V.I. Daniela Ruah is Portuguese-American, so I feel that ethnically, she kinda fits the V.I. look. I like her attitude in the series, the way that she inhabits the character. She would be one of the people I’d love to have considered.
Who would be the doctor, V.I.’s friend?
Doctor Hershel, that’s a hard one. You know, Meryl Streep can play anyone! I have to think about that. I don’t have movie actors on my frontal lobe. Lotty Herschel is another dark person and short. Lotty physically is my father’s mother. She was four-eleven. I have to say that every time I talk about her, because in my mind, she was six feet tall. She had so much energy! She projected six feet. That’s how I think of Lotty, I also think of her looking like my grandmother. My grandmother wore earrings in the shape of a bunch of grapes, and when I picture her it’s those grapes vibrating because she was never still.
It’s true that reality is the biggest trigger for my imagination. I wish I was like Anne of Green Gables, with an imagination that just soared, took off, and separated me from the world around me, but I need something real to give me a springboard.
L. D. Barnes writes mystery, historical fiction and poetry. She is working on the second novel in her Chicago Street Crime series while living on the far south side. Barnes is a member of FLOW (For Love of Writing), Longwood Writers Guild and Mystery Writers of America. She performs locally.