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Total Recall
Sara Paretsky
London: Penguin, 2002.
£6.99, 544 pages, ISBN 0-141-00713-3.

Bill Phillips
Universitat de Barcelona


The hard-boiled American private eye has been a familiar figure since Sam Spade made it into the movies in The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett, the author of the original novel, created a number of other detectives among whom the greatest is undoubtedly the Continental Cop: a man with no name, no family, and few friends, but with an incorruptible sense of rectitude and honour, and a readiness for violence. Hammett’s writing inspired other writers including, most famously, Raymond Chandler who described the ideal detective in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder”. “Down these mean streets,” he wrote, “a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Such a man was Philip Marlowe, who, in turn, was the model for Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, and Robert B. Parker’s private detective, Spenser, whose ongoing adventures have provided his creator, over the last thirty years, with the opportunity to explore, among other things, different aspects of American masculinity.

It might also be argued that, following Hammett, American detective fiction split two ways. The liberal, or politically leftish writers such as Chandler and Parker were inspired by Hammett’s own commitment to socialism. Extremely right-wing novelists such as Mickey Spillane, on the other hand, were content merely to emulate the excitement of Hammett’s plots and the rawness of his violence, while adding large doses of mindless patriotism, sexism and xenophobia.

Where, meanwhile, were the women? The classic English detective story had had its Miss Marples, but a female version of the hard-boiled American P.I. did not really take off until the publication of Indemnity Only, the first of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels, in 1982. Warshawski, like Philip Marlowe, is honourable in the sense that she is neither mean, nor tarnished, but it is clear from the beginning that Paretsky had no intention of creating a female caricature of a male detective. Male detectives, for example, get into fights, shoot people, and are prone to resolve problems with generous doses of violence.

This, to a large extent, V.I. eschews. Her detection is, anyway, or so she claims, centred on white collar fraud, online investigation and other such hands-off activity which provides her with what little income she seems to earn. Poverty, in fact, is one of many characteristics that V.I. Warshawski has passed on to her female colleagues, and which she does not share with Marlowe or Spenser. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who first appeared in 1986 (A is for Alibi), for example, is a Warshawski clone with similar housing, clothing and transportation problems, while male detectives, although not rich, rarely complain of financial difficulties, and always have enough spare change for a drink at the Ritz. The main reason for Warshawski’s penury is, however, the fact that she is perpetually investigating on behalf of her friends and family. These investigations usually provide the main plots to the novels, and are taken on for a mixture of reasons: obligation, guilt and loyalty being the foremost, but rarely for pay. The Continental Cop, remember, had no family and few friends, and the same could largely be said of Marlowe and Spenser. Warshawski, however, is a woman, and it is the ties maintained by women that keep society running, isn't it? It is these investigations too, which give the novels their appeal, since without them there would be none of the violence, death and mayhem that the reader expects from detective novels, and it is here that an important aspect of femininity, as opposed to masculinity, is revealed. Men, it is argued, externalise their emotions, and especially their anger, through violence against others. Hence the beatings, shootings and killings so beloved not only of Spillane, but of Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, and Parker as well. Parker, one time university lecturer in English Literature, actually analyses quite closely the violent behaviour of Spenser, seeing in it a masculine need to prove who is the toughest kid on the block.

Warshawski, of course, does not have the same needs, rejecting even the necessity of having to compete against male colleagues in a male-dominated profession, yet she does experience frequent bouts of anger, frustration and even despair, particularly on the many occasions when she, or her friends, are the victims of male violence themselves. Her reaction is feminine: she internalises her anger, driving it inwards, and blaming herself for failure, incompetence, disloyalty and weakness. As a consequence she drives herself ever harder, and this leads to one of the most irritating aspects of the Warshawski novels in general, and Total Recall in particular: she is perpetually complaining of how tired she is. By page 16 she is already “thick with sleepiness,” (16) three pages later she worries that fatigue makes her “cranky” (19) and so it goes on through the rest of the novel with Warshawski too tired to think, to drive, to eat or to sleep, yet for some reason not doing the obvious thing, which is to go home and get into bed. “You bounce around Chicago like a pinball in the hands of a demented wizard,” (113) she is told early on, and she refers back twice to this comment, accepting the truth of it, only to speed up her manic progress all the more. Another related irritant is the fact that her “pinball” behaviour requires her to spend large parts of her day, and consequently large parts of the novel, attempting to go from one side of town in her car to the other, and then back again, and again, and again. Perhaps one of the aims of the novel is to offer a not very subtle ecological message about our over-reliance on cars, though it also reflects V.I.’s less than perfectly organised mind as she reminds herself yet again that she has yet another task to perform before she can sleep, and yes, it is on the other side of Chicago.

The plot of Total Recall has two threads. A man dies believing he has left insurance to pay for his funeral, only for his grieving relatives to discover that it was paid out several years earlier. Meanwhile V.I.’s friend Lotty Herschel suffers an emotional breakdown after a man appears on television claiming to be a Jew named Paul Radbuka. She refuses to explain why she is so affected, and V.I. decides to find out for herself. Such emotional upheavals are the mainstay of the V.I. Warshawski novels, and together with her never-ending fatigue, and Chicago’s traffic jams, the reader rapidly begins to suffer sympathetic symptoms of exhaustion. Couple this with the fact that V.I. is not really very nice. Yes, she’s undoubtedly politically correct: she supports , women’s rights, she is pro-choice, anti-racist (occasional black boyfriend), but, apart from the emotional cost, one feels that she would just not be agreeable company. Well, for a start, she would probably fall asleep on you. Yet despite that the novels, including Total Recall, are a resounding success. They cannot take rereading at a sitting as some series, or serial novels, such as Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series can, but the year or two gap between publication is sufficient for the reader to recover some kind of emotional equilibrium and the appearance of a Sara Paretsky novel is an event in the way that a Sue Grafton novel is not. She has also managed to maintain a consistent quality of writing; Patricia Cornwell, for instance (creator of Chief Medical Examiner Kaye Scarpetta), comes to mind as a writer who resoundingly has not (anyway Cornwell is on the Mickey Spillane side of the fence, the only difference being that Spillane is a much better writer). But Paretsky is always a pleasure to read, and despite the almost entirely negative thrust of this review, I thoroughly recommend the Warshawski novels. They are very well-written, gripping, informative, and extremely enjoyable.


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