While women have always excelled at the gentlemanly British variety of detective fiction, the hard-boiled American detective thriller once seemed about as appropriate a place for a female writer as the defensive backfield of the Los Angeles Raiders.
But V. I. (the initials stand for Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawski is an equal opportunity private dick -- and a tough one at that.
And for V. I.'s creator -- crime novelist Sara Paretsky -- getting a strong woman character in a major motion picture outweighs the disappointment she feels with "V. I. Warshawski," which opened in theaters Friday.
"I could say, 'It stunk; they didn't do my book right; it's not as insightful as my writing' -- but I don't want to say any of those things," she says. "The important thing is that they [the Disney Co.] did it."
What they did, Paretsky means, is portray "a woman whom they can beat up, but can't shut up -- a woman whose voice they can't take away. And whatever I think of the script, I like the way Kathleen [Turner] plays V. I. She's tough, sexy, funny and feminine."
Over the telephone -- she lives in Chicago with her husband, physicist Courtenay Wright -- the 44-year-old Paretsky sounds a lot sweeter and shyer than her wisecracking, .38 caliber Smith & Wesson-toting shamus. But they have a lot in common: They're both doing what used to be considered strictly men's jobs, and doing them superlatively well.
The writer, says Joseph H. Summers, a professor of English literature at the University of Rochester, is "beginning to create characters who make you as interested in them as you are in the plot -- that's the mark of real literature."
The detective is making her mark with equal vigor.
"I was able to turn slightly and bring my hand up with a short, strong chop under his gun wrist. He let go of me but didn't drop the gun. I followed through with a half-turn that brought my right elbow under his armpit and made a wedge of my right fist and forearm. I drove it into his ribs with my left hand, palm open, and heard a satisfying pop that told me I'd hit home between the fifth and sixth ribs and separated them."
That's from 1982's "Indemnity Alone," the first of Paretsky's six novels chronicling Warshawski's adventures. Although she had been writing for herself since she was 5 years old, Paretsky -- the child of New Yorkers, who grew up in Lawrence, Kan. -- did not set out to be a writer but an academic like her parents.
But while she was completing a doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, the Ph.D. glut of the time made her decide to get a master's in business administration. She completed herdissertation but went to work for a large insurance company. That's where she got much of the information about insurance fraud that informs her novels. (She has since become just as knowledgeable about medical malpractice, the shipping industry and whatever else V. I. needs to know to solve a murder.)
Paretsky says she wasn't really happy in the male-dominated insurance business.
"I saw too many more-deserving women being passed over by less-deserving men," she says. "And when men were alone, thinking that women couldn't overhear them, they'd joke about how it was always possible to make a woman -- any woman -- cry. It made me realize that this was not how I wanted to spend my life."
She had always loved hard-boiled detective fiction and had what she calls an ambivalent relationship with its masters, particularly the greatest of them -- Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels were written in the 1930s.
"I first began reading Chandler in my 20s at the height of the woman's movement and I both loved and hated him," Paretsky says. "I loved him because he's a great writer who practically invented the detective who has to operate outside established systems of justice because he's on the side of people without power and influence.
"But I hated him because of the way he usually saw women. To put it simply, if you were a woman and you were sexually active, you were evil. But everyone who writes detective fiction today -- including women such as myself, Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller -- is essentially ringing changes on what Chandler did."
In 1979 -- the same year that she went to work for the insurance firm -- she started the novel that would become "Indemnity Only." Six months later she enrolled in a detective fiction course at Northwestern University, taught by the writer Stu
art Kaminsky. "I really owe the book to him," she says. "When Dial [Press] bought it two years later, it was the happiest day in my life."
More books followed, and in 1985 she made a decision that she now calls "somewhat foolish in hindsight," selling the movie rights to the character V. I. Warshawski for $200,000.
"It was foolish because I lost control of the character," she says. "It was smart because it gave me the freedom to quit my job and become a full-time writer."
Money is no longer something Paretsky needs to worry about. Her latest book, "Burn Marks," has sold more than 400,000 copies in paperback in four months, an amazingly large number for a novelist whose audience was thought to consist only of mystery readers.
The fact is that Paretsky -- a superb, if not flashy, writer with hairpin-curve plotting -- is already beginning to cross over from that audience to a much larger one. She's also, detective fiction experts say, on the verge of passing from writing popular fiction to writing real literature.
One thing that distinguishes her, says Summers, of the University of Rochester, "is that each of Paretsky's novels tackles important social issues like abortion rights and the plight of the homeless. She knows that the big companies of American industry have engaged in crimes and -- literally -- gotten away with murder."
For Paretsky, the most important social issues right now are those she and other women face because they are women.
"I like that I've seen women leaving ["V. I. Warshawski"] excited and feeling good because they've seen a woman on the screen who can take charge," she says. "The most important thing about a movie like this is that it can help a little in changing the fact that women are usually seen as victims."