Written by Sara Paretsky — Some crime series stretch themselves too thinly, eventually petering out, plots so transparent you can see the joins a mile away. That’s not the case here. In Fallout, Sara Paretsky and VI Warshawsky have reached book 18 and there’s no sign that the author or her private detective heroine are fading.
In an inspired bit of plotwork, Victoria Iphigenia is taken way out of her comfort zone – to Kansas, no less, and the little town of Lawrence. It’s a world away from the Chicago so beloved of Vic and that ‘stranger in a strange land’ feeling, so beloved of Lee Child and Jack Reacher, fair emanates off the page.
In her home city, Warshawsky is surrounded by friends, has a huge array of useful contacts and makes full use of her street smarts; in Lawrence she is treated with suspicion and her investigation is hampered at every turn.
But what brings her so far from home? Warshawsky finds it impossible to refuse when her god-daughter Bernie asks for help. August Veriden, a young filmmaker went off to Kansas with Emerald Ferring, a veteran movie actress who is planning a film about her life and career. But the pair has vanished, and Bernie and her friend Angela, who is August’s cousin, are worried.
Never one to turn down the entreaties of a friend or family member, Warshawsky packs her car and sets off to Lawrence, accompanied by Peppy the dog. First stop is the military base where Emerald was born, but the trail begins to turn mighty cold once she arrives at the last place the missing pair were seen. It’s a run-down farmhouse just outside the quiet university town and seems innocuous enough, but as VI’s investigations progress, she begins to stir up memories of a period when the place was not so peaceful. Back in the 1980s, students from the university tried to set up their own version of the Greenham Common protest at a nuclear site next to the farm. That all ended in a most dramatic fashion and the repercussions still run through Lawrence to this day – the book’s title seems apt in so many ways!
It’s a small town and everyone seems to know her business, but when the locals close ranks Warshawsky struggles to make any headway in her quest. At first the local police appear friendly and helpful, but when VI begins to attract trouble (no surprise to followers of this series), her welcome starts to lose its lustre. First, she helps a homeless woman who’s been drugged and left for dead, then she discovers a dead body at the aforementioned farmhouse. Yes, VI is a one-woman crime wave!
Paretsky shows all the skills of a circus juggler as she keeps an ever-expanding number of plot strands in the air, weaving them together to an unexpected conclusion – but the story ebbs and flows to such an extent that at times I found myself having to go back a page or two, checking on who was who. At the heart of it all is Warshawsky, far from home, missing the people and places that keep her grounded. Peppy, it seems, is her only friend and she clings to the dog like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood.
We’re all set up for book 19, and hopefully our hero will be back on home turf again. But wherever VI Warshawsky may roam, you can be assured of an entertaining read.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars