Written by Sara Paretsky — As all die-hard crime fiction fans know, some of the world’s best-selling authors aren’t happy unless they churn out book after book in a series featuring a recurring central character. After a while, some of those characters begin to feel like friends. Sadly, others get lost in increasingly diluted story lines which can turn the reading faithful away for good. Sara Paretsky’s private detective VI Warshawski sits firmly in the first camp, and I was delighted to make her acquaintance once more. Critical Mass is the 16th novel to feature Victoria Iphigenia and it will keep both established fans and newcomers to the series happy.
It isn’t the first time VI has taken on a case as a favour to a friend, although this missing person search is a little unusual. Did I say person? Make that people – because one soon becomes two. It’s an example of the domino effect that keeps up momentum throughout the novel. The prologue is set in Vienna, 1913, where a little girl is entranced by the rainbows of light created by sunlight shining through the cut glass prisms of a nursery window. As we are to discover, little Martina is destined to have very little light in her life.
The book proper opens in the present day, and we find VI literally outside of her comfort zone. She’s out in the boondocks, scouring the scrubby land surrounding a forgotten farm as the sun beats down upon her. It soon becomes clear that the property has been used as a drugs den and the discovery of a man’s crow-pecked body in a dust-dry cornfield nearby has our girl calling for police assistance. It won’t be the last time she will need their help before this tale has run its course….
So there’s plenty to be found here though, sadly, not the thing that she has come in search of – Judy Binder. It was Judy’s distraught phone call, begging for help, to VI’s oldest friend and confidante, Lotty Hershel, that had inspired her out of town trip. She returns without Judy, but with an injured Rottweiler in tow – and a whole bundle of loose ends, questions and conundrums. This is no simple case, and when VI discovers that Judy’s computer whiz son, Martin, has disappeared and ‘gone dark’, the plot thickens. Is Martin with his mother? Or has he run off with state secrets, courtesy of the top-drawer hi-tech company which uses Martin’s skills to such great effect?
The complex and convoluted plot has Warshawski running in all manner of directions, but although there are many strands, Paretsky skilfully weaves them into a cohesive yarn. On our way to an explosive finale, we are taken on a journey to the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps of World War II, into the realms of nuclear fission and the physicists who created it, with a day trip into a modern day world of top secret and complex computing technology. I admit that when I read the long, long list of thank-yous at the start of the novel I feared I’d need the help of someone like Sheldon Cooper to get me through its complexities, but I’m happy to report that those fears were unfounded.
Critical Mass is a thought-provoking, exciting and ultimately satisfying read – with the added bonus of having the marvellous VI Warshawski at its heart. She’s female, fast-thinking, complicated, ornery and above all human – a daredevil girl pal who really should know better but is always guaranteed to entertain. I’m already looking forward to book 17!
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars