I’m a big fan of Sara Paretsky and a big fan of her heroine, V.I. Warshawski. Dead Land, however, is not the best installment in the series. The author tells us that this is the first book she has written without the support of her now-deceased husband. Perhaps that partially explains why this book was somewhat disappointing. Now, Ms. Paretsky has set a very high bar for herself, and her somewhat disappointing book is still pretty good. It’s just not up to what you might expect from a V.I. Warshawski mystery.
The story brings back many of Paretsky’s usual cast of characters that circle around Vic, including Murray Ryerson, Mr. Contreras and his dogs, Lotty, Vic’s goddaughter, Bernie, and Vic’s current love interest, who conveniently flies away for an archeological dig so that Vic can run off to Kansas during the investigation. It’s a comfortable look-in on the peripheral characters, but they are just bit players and there’s no new ground broken for them.
The main story is a tangled web of corporate greed, a family feud in Chile, and a mass shooting four years earlier that killed Hector, who has a connection to the Chilean mine owning family, and who was the lover of Lydia, a fast-rising folk music singer, who was present for the mass shooting at a Kansas gorge. Lydia withdrew from society and music, and ended up living on the streets in Chicago, where Vic and Bernie stumble upon her and become caught up in her story, her subsequent disappearance, and how that might be related to the murder of the man Bernie was dating and who was involved in a Chicago urban planning group that may be involved in a shady deal that links back to the Chilean family and a big Chicago Law firm that may be linked back to the mass shooting. Did you get all that? Vic ignores her paying clients (there’s virtually no narrative about any other jobs she’s working on) and sets off to investigate the murder, then a second, and to find the missing Lydia.
The author seems to understand that the set-up for this story is very long and not particularly exciting or easy to follow. So, she starts the book in the middle, with a scene in which the mysterious “Coop,” who is another street-person and friend of Lydia, shows up at Vic’s apartment and drops off his big dog, named Bear, and has a confrontation with Vic. We spend the next hundred pages or so getting the back-story on what happened leading up to that opening scene. Then, the next hundred or so pages have V.I. flailing about trying to make heads or tails out of the situation. If you want to skip all that, you can start reading at chapter 42, where Ms. Paretsky has Vic give a helpful synopsis of the major plot points to a newly introduced character. From there, Vic traipses across Kansas, conveniently finding every important clue. She also gets shot at a couple of times (although it’s not clear by whom or why) as she digs into the four-year-old mass shooting case and (surprise!) finds something that everyone else either overlooked or covered up.
I won’t spoil the plot, which does finally come together in the end. But, have a pad and a pencil with you when reading so that you can write down the family tree and try to keep all the players straight as the story careens toward its conclusion. Keeping up with all the names, relationships, and motivations isn’t easy. And that’s really what makes this book different from most other V.I. Warshawski books. Normally, the author guides us through the story smoothly, giving the reader time to get to know the key characters and making their relationships, motivations, and actions clear. The plot flow is usually easy to follow, keeping you turning pages enthusiastically. This one felt more like an assignment that you had to finish and you’re worried that you’re not going to score well on the test.
In every detective mystery there are one or two moments when the protagonist catches a break and discovers some important bit of information through hard work, smart decisions, or sometimes just blind luck. In this plot, there are an unusually large number of those “lucky” breaks. So many that the author acknowledges them near the end. Within the context of the other issues with this book, that’s a tell that even Ms. Paretsky is not entirely happy with the finished product.
There were also an unusual number of editing errors, poor sentence structures, and confusing prose in this book. I would have thought the editors at her publisher would have done a better job on such a high-end product.
I’m still going to buy the next V.I. Warshawski novel when it comes out. I’ll hope that Ms. Paretsky gets over the loss of her husband and has a better focus for the next book.