Pay Dirt by Sara Paretsky

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Paydirt by Sara Paretsky front cover

Pay Dirt is the 22nd book in the VI Warshawski series by veteran US crime author Sara Paretsky. Back in the 1980s, female characters in crime novels tended to be vamps or victims, according to the author, so at that time a lead character like Vic Warshawski was ground-breaking. Vic is a former lawyer, turned private investigator. She is smart, a quick thinker and unafraid to take on tough guys. It has been an impressive 42 years since the publication of the first book in the series.

Vic is to Chicago as Rebus is to Edinburgh but this time around Paretsky shakes things up. Much of Pay Dirt is set in Lawrence, Kansas, which is a small university city. Paretsky grew up in Kansas and her knowledge of the area and its history helps to give the book a strong sense of place.

Relocating Vic from Chicago is not the only significant change in Pay Dirt. You will see many signs that Vic is not her usual confident self. She is having nightmares about a traumatic incident that involved herself, her lover, Peter, and a missing trans femme student, Taylor. A violent confrontation between Taylor and their father ended with Peter injured, Taylor murdered and the father’s suicide. Both Vic and Peter feel responsible and their grief pushes them apart.

Vic is struggling so her goddaughter, Bernie, invites Vic to join her and her friends in Kansas to watch one of the group compete in a basketball game. The students head out to a bar after the game. The next morning they discover that Sabrina, one of the young women, never returned to the hotel.

The students must leave for Chicago, but Vic promises to stay a day to locate Sabrina. Looking for the missing student is a struggle for Vic. She doesn’t have the same resources and contacts that she would have in Chicago. These challenges are further complicated by her feelings about searching for another student as things ended so horrifically went Taylor went missing.

Vic traces Sabrina to a vacant house that has an unsavory reputation. Sabrina is in the throes of a drug overdose. Neither the local police nor the FBI are pleased that Vic located the student before them. Sabrina is quickly whisked off to rehab. When Vic returns to the property for follow-up and discovers a body in the house, she becomes a primary suspect. She decides to look further into the drug house to clear her name. Is the need to clear your name a common trope in crime fiction? Certainly, however it is effective in this instance.

Our protagonist ends up with a diverse group of supporters in Lawrence. Zoe, a local reporter who is eager to write an exposé, trades information with her. Lou and Ed, a couple who own the local scrapyard provide backup support and a homeless vet gives Vic with an alibi when she needs it.

Vic begins to regain her physical strength and confidence as well as an understanding of how her investigation has ties to the past. Paretsky has the challenge of handling a multitude of characters as Vic explores the past in order to make sense of the present. With dual time lines and different locations comes the need to remember many character names. Paretsky thoughtfully provides a list of characters with brief descriptions at the end of the book. The downside of the need to check names is that it can pull you away from the building momentum of a clever plot.

Paretsky always manages to weave significant issues into her plots which is part of their appeal. In Pay Dirt we get a sense of the fear felt by some people in the trans community, the struggle of opiate addictions and feel the frustration of teachers when parents protest critical race theory. All of these issues combined with a dynamic lead character and an interesting plot line make for an enduring series.

Also see All the Sinners Bleed by SA Cosby, for more American crime fiction.

Hodder & Stoughton

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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