Overboard, by Sara Paretsky [Review]

“Many aspects of the overly complicated plot are not explained well.”

V.I. Warshawski fans will get mostly what they expect from Sara Paretsky’s newest installment in the long-running series, Overboard. I’m a huge fan of Ms. Paretsky’s writing and V.I. as a character. The story is the usual high-energy, high-peril adventure through the back-streets of Chicago as V.I. chases down a mystery charged with political corruption, police corruption, and deep-seeded family squabbles that go back to her childhood. So, business as usual for our favorite female private eye. But this is not the best-executed story in the series and, in several ways, a bit disappointing.

I would not recommend that anyone new to the series jump in here. There are too many characters with too much backstory from prior books for a new reader to absorb. The author attempts to provide context, but it’s a losing battle. Even for long-term fans who know the characters, many aspects of this plot are even more complex and difficult to keep straight than most of the V.I. stories. This one starts when V.I. and the dogs stumble upon a teenage girl, near-dead, under a rock pile at a secluded edge of Lake Michigan. Being a Good Samaritan immediately lands V.I. in hot water with the local cops, led by an obviously corrupt fellow named Coney, who bullies, harasses, and beats V.I. while attempting to extract from her something he thinks she obtained from the comatose girl on the rocks. (Remember this)  This plot thread joins up with vandalism at the synagogue where Lotty and Max Herschel are members, a long-running domestic problem in a family with whom V.I.’s dead cousin Boom-Boom used to hang out, a nefarious real estate tycoon who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends, a long-lost mob associate who turns up connected to everything, the son of the squabbling family, who stumbles on information he shouldn’t have and reaches out to V.I. for help, the girl from the rocks, who turns out to be (well, I won’t spoil it) . . . connected to things, and a science-fiction tech device somehow invented by one of V.I.’s childhood foils who doesn’t seem bright enough to operate a video game and who doesn’t seem to understand how his device even works.

It’s a lot to follow, and the threads only come together through miraculous happenstance where V.I. is always in exactly the right (or wrong) place at the exact right time. Many aspects of the overly complicated plot are not explained well. In one spot, a character gives a summary exposition to V.I. for no logical reason, as if it was thrown in late in the writing process in order to make sense of the facts. Even then, it doesn’t help much, which leaves the author narrating all the possible theories of the case inside V.I.’s head as she tries to put all the puzzle pieces together. In the end, the resolution is not entirely satisfactory and lacks the “ah-ha!” moment when the reader can see that the key to solving the mystery was right there all along. Instead, V.I. gets the information late in a cartoon-villain fashion.

The entire plot thread involving the vandalized synagogue is left hanging and ends up having no connection to the main plot. It’s not clear if it was supposed to be a red herring, or just an excuse to bring Lotty and Max more into the story and provide V.I. with a reason for being in the vicinity of the girl in the rocks. I was waiting for the big reveal concerning what was on the security cameras V.I. installed and which were referenced many times. (Checkov’s surveillance cams) But the author never tied up that loose end. Meanwhile, the item that was the key object that drove every character’s actions in the first half of the book (remember?) becomes irrelevant and forgotten by the end. Given the relatively long length here, the story could have used some trimming and tightening. If this were a lesser author or written less well, it would be three-stars.  

This is the first novel Ms. Paretsky has written since the death of her husband, who I’m told was a great collaborator in her writing process. I can appreciate the value of having a spouse to knock ideas around with (I do it myself), and the challenge of handling the entire writing process alone for the first time. Here, the convoluted plot and predictable, one-dimensional characters leave me thinking that cranking out this book was more of a chore than a labor of love for the author. The jumps of logic and sudden bursts of information are abrupt, as if the pieces didn’t really fit, but the author forced them together by inventing events or scenes necessary to explain things to the reader, but which don’t flow easily within the story.

The saving grace is the writer’s smooth prose, concise dialogue, and the marvelous world that exists inside V.I.’s head that she shares with us. The writing is mostly excellent, filled with the expected but always entertaining descriptions of the Chicago landscape and the colorful characters who inhabit it – even if the characters here are often cartoonish in their good guy/bad guy roles. Reading the next chapter never feels like a chore when the writer has such command of the language.

The bottom line here is that V.I. fans will find the book entertaining – like another episode in a long-running drama series. We don’t gain any new insight into V.I., or meet any new characters who are likely to pop up again. We don’t gain any insight into Chicago politics or the motivations of corrupt cops. But we enjoy the action and enjoy seeing our old friends as they careen down the fictional slope toward the peril below. This is not the best book in the series, but it is still better than many other choices for readers who look forward to another peek into V.I.’s world.

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