Book Review: Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky. Signet Select; Penguin Books. 2012. $10.

Ms. Paretsky’s books are not for juveniles. I mean, young adults could read them, and probably should read them, actually. They would have a wonderful role model for writing fiction, for spending time thinking about writing, for constructing an amazingly detailed framework upon which to layout intricate crime fiction. My point is her crime fiction is designed to make her readers think, to help solve the crime, or crimes. While one could use Breakdown as great summer reading, readers could go deeper and use the details, hints, and evidence to solve crimes and misdemeanors.

Breakdown is a an interesting book on a number of levels, not simply because of a murder. A guy shows up dead in the deadest of places, a cemetery. Oddly enough, plenty of witnesses saw the murder. In the dark of night, in the rain, in a cemetery, a place and circumstance where literally no witnesses should be around, but, in this case, plenty of witnesses. Why would there be witnesses in the middle of the night, in the rain, in a cemetery?

Evidently, several high school girls have become infatuated with a series of popular supernatural novels. They formed a club concerning the books, the Carmilla Club, named for one of the novels major characters. The club has rules and initiation rites; on this particular night they slipped out to a local cemetery to add a couple new members. In the dark, and rain, the girls slip under the stone alcove of a temple-like memorial, and are startled by the sudden appearance of a vampire and a dead guy on a concrete slab, a piece of rebar impaling his chest, just like a dead vampire might have.

Turns out the dead guy is a private detective, just like V.I. Warshawski. But, who would kill a private detective? Oh, well, a smarmy P.I. like Miles Wuchnik probably had lots of enemies, standing in a line like people waiting for a deli sandwich to kill the guy. Thankfully, crime novels, at least Sara’s, are more complicated than simple vendettas. Wuchnik had connections to a billionaire Chicagoan, Chaim Salanter, whose granddaughter was part of this initiation ritual. The granddaughter was a Carmilla Club member and friend with another girl, Nia Durango. Nia’s mother, Sophy is running for the United States Senate. And, now these girls are tied-up with a murder, being potential witnesses, and potential targets.

Making matters more interesting, Sophy Durango’s campaign finance manager is Chaim Salanter. Together, Durango and Salanter are popular targets of Global Entertainment Network (GEN). GEN is renowned for hosting conservative programs, especially one hosted by Wade Lawlor, Wade’s World. Wade’s popularity has garnered him near-cult figure status among political conservatives.

Ms. Paretsky’s layering here is as delicious as any tiramisu. The Carmilla Club bears a striking resemblance to the Twilight vampire series and the real world adoration for those books. I’m also left wondering if the billionaire might be patterned on George Soros, a benefactor for Democrats. GEN seems to be analogous to Fox News, with Wade Lawlor standing in for Sean Hannity. I think even Rush Limbaugh makes an appearance near the end of Breakdown. A bald, porcine fellow with beady eyes makes an appearance near the final reveal at the novel’s conclusion. Could be Karl Rove. Who knows; this is fiction, right?

I potentially am over-analyzing Breakdown; I couldn’t help but notice many parallels between the many plot devices, intrigue, and characters, though. While reading, and trying to pick up clues, reading the nuances of the characters interacting and dialogue, I couldn’t help but insinuating my own interpretation of characters. Probably wishful thinking along the way. When a reader finds themselves investing time interpreting characters, events, and circumstances both within a novel and outside the novel, trying to infer connections to real events, real events potentially inspiration for fictionalization, this investment is the hallmark of a wonderful author. The author has fabricated an intricate web of stories within stories, drawing motives and influence from many sources, both real and imagined. As I read Breakdown, I couldn’t help wondering if the plot was a infused with a subtext of Ms. Paretsky’s own beliefs. I wasn’t distracted; mostly amused. I could see how some readers might be put off with subtleties and implied jibes. Remember; this is fiction!

The danger then becomes the author loses track of plot details, the story meanders and loses focus, leaving the reader wondering what the hell direction the protagonist is heading. Ms. Paretsky’s writing is sharp and focused. While V. I. Warshawski may get befuddled occasionally, I never get the impression Ms. Paretsky’s plotting has fallen off the rails.

In Breakdown, Ms. Paretsky again captures my attention not simply because of some superficial similarities to current popular culture icons, but because of her inclusion of interesting geography and history. The wealthy Salanter family has connections to Vilnius, Lithuania. Chaim (“rhyme”) Salanter immigrated to the United States as a child before the Second World War. His family, Jews, became part of the extended European Jew diaspora as Nazi-infected Germany spread across the landscape.

Lithuania is one of the three Baltic states, along with Estonia and Latvia. Having a population of about 3.5 million people and a little larger than West Virginia, Lithuania shares a precarious position, wedged between the Baltic Sea to the west and a temperamental Putin-powered Russia to the east. While Russian considers the Baltic states as children who have strayed from the parent, the Baltic states consider themselves to be unique and sovereign from Russian influence. Eight of 10 people living in Lithuania are Lithuanian and speak Lithuanian. Russians living in the Baltic states are there mostly because of Stalin and Lenin relocating Communist party families in the years 1920-1940, to “russify” these places, to keep them within the Russian/Soviet sphere of influence. Same holds true for Ukraine, too.

Lithuania, as well as the other Baltic states and Russia, had significant Jewish populations. These Ashkenazi Jews lived throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and spoke mostly Yiddish. These Jewish populations were discriminated against throughout Europe, sometimes reviled. People would do well to understand Jewish populations were not well-regarded either before or after World War Two. Jewish culture had very liberal financial rules, allowing them to handle money and transactions forbidden to Muslims, or discouraged by Christians, thus making Jews important conduits for handling finances. And, oddly enough, being pressed into service by Christians and Muslims to handle financial transactions would become one of the traits people demonized them for. Jewish populations are much smaller today in Central and Eastern Europe due to both the Holocaust, and voluntary or forced emigration to amenable host countries, like the United States, Canada, and Argentina.

Breakdown features many local Chicago landmarks. The Parterre Club, where V. I. meets Chaim Salanter early in the book, may not exist, but the neighborhood certainly does.

Schiller Street is a few block north of Elm Street, and both are located adjacent to Lake Shore Drive. People familiar with Chicago understand the real estate here is prime. Many choice properties, home to old money and new. A quick search of current property listings is pretty informative. I found a condo near Schiller and Lake Shore Drive, about 7,000 square feet, five bedrooms, for a paltry $4.8 million (Chicago Condo Finders). I won’t make that in two lifetimes. Wait…I broke a mirror this month; make that three lifetimes.

Downers Grove, Illinois gets a few visits from V. I. Warshawski in Breakdown. Downers Grove has a modest population of about 50,000 people. In 2010, Forbe’s identified Downers Grove the 8th “Most Friendliest Town in America” (Forbes)

Authors who take the time to augment their stories with real human episodes I appreciate. I continue to buy their books, read them, and write their reviews here. As much as I am rewarded by the richness of their efforts I want to give a little back and promote them. Ms. Paretsky doesn’t need much of my promotion; she is highly regarded among crime fiction writers without any help from me.

If you haven’t already done so, add Sara Paretsky and V. I. Warshawski to your reading list. She writes a good novel, good characters, thoughtful, with good pace, interesting history and geography. A good model for up-and-coming authors. And, she is the 2015 President of the Mystery Writers of America (link), so you better pay attention!


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