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V.I.'s lumps aside, mystery hard to beat


Private detective V. I. "Vic" Warshawski has seen her share of trouble, but in her latest adventure, "Tunnel Vision," she is beat up and threatened, has to crawl through a dark, damp passageway swarming with rats, and even gets arrested along with a gang of illegal Romanian immigrants whom she was interviewing to obtain information about a case. All that punishment can be rough on a woman, as well as her friends.

"No matter what you set out to do the most disastrous possible outcome takes place," Vic's close pal, Lotty Herschel, admonishes. "If you go to the corner to buy milk, that is a guarantee that the store will be held up at precisely that second."

There's action aplenty in "Tunnel Vision," which reaches a thrilling, dizzying peak when Vic and her elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras, must descend into the murky world of Chicago's flooded underground tunnels to rescue a runaway child, her siblings and a homeless family.

Sara Paretsky admits in the novel's foreword that she was never allowed access to the tunnels, but she still sets the scene with marvelous clarity:

"Damp had mixed with coal dust to form a black glaze over the stairs. The flashlight glinted on it like moonlight on black ice. . . . We seemed to move not through dark air but the essence of darkness itself, a physical presence that squashed and flattened our puny light. We moved quietly, oppressed by the weight of the air, and of the earth above us. Only the twittering of the rats, taunting our slow movements by the speed and ease with which they ran past us, broke the silence."

Every Warshawski mystery has its share of human rats as well -- greedy businessmen who are always eager to exploit others in their quest for wealth and power. One of the prime bad guys in "Tunnel Vision" is Fabian Messenger, a law professor angling for a federal judgeship. His wife, Deirdre, serves on the board of Arcadia House, a shelter for battered women, along with V. I.

When the detective tells her about a homeless mother and children she discovered living in the basement of her downtown office building, Deirdre becomes concerned, and comes to Vic's office to see if she can help. Vic is dubious, but agrees to let her try.

Shortly thereafter, Vic discovers Deirdre's savagely beaten body sprawled across her desk. Despite Deirdre's work for Arcadia House, Vic had recently found out that she was hiding a terrible secret -- she was a battered wife herself. Could Fabian's rage have driven him to kill her? Or could the homeless woman Deirdre was seeking to assist have been the murderer?

Vic's investigation involves her with Deirdre's troubled daughter, Emily; a powerful senator; and a women's trade collective trying to build housing for poor single mothers that keeps running into powerful opposition from City Hall. The collective is funded by the sister of Vic's lover, Conrad, a Chicago policeman. Not surprisingly, Conrad takes a dim view of Vic's methods, which frequently involve gathering information by illegal, or at least highly dangerous, means.

Some features of Ms. Paretsky's novels have become over-familiar -- for instance, does Vic really need to get beaten to a pulp during the course of every investigation? Also, despite the complex twists and turns of Ms. Paretsky's plots, the inevitable equation of "blue collar good, white collar bad" sometimes seems a little too facile.

The freshest character in "Tunnel Vision" is a spirited young computer nerd named Ken, the son of a wealthy businessman who is one of Vic's best customers. The businessman challenges Vic to find a community service job for Ken, who was kicked out of Harvard for hacking into the Department of Energy's classified files.

Of course, no organization wants to hire a hacker, so Ken spends his free time following Vic around, nurturing a case of puppy love. He withstands all the abuse Vic heaps on him, and keeps coming back for more.

Vic turns 40 as the book ends, celebrating the conclusion of her case and trying to cope with several major changes in her life. It will be interesting to see how she transforms herself as she ages, but regardless of what happens, one thing seems certain -- she will continue to fight for what she believes in, no matter how many bruises that may bring.

Ms. Trowbridge frequently reviews mysteries for The Sun. She lives in Baltimore.


Title: "Tunnel Vision"

Author: Sara Paretsky

Publisher: Delacorte

Length, price: 432 pages, $21.95

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