Friday, August 17, 2012
Hard Time by Sara Paretsky
This was this month's CT. mystery book club read.
Way back in the 1980s, long before Janet Evanovich and her lookalikes came along with their slapstick, accidental detectives, I was aware of 3 authors who were busy creating their prototypes. These authors were taking unsolved murders out of the hands of Miss-Marple-types, who had solved many a mystery while sipping tea by the fire, and putting them into the hands of women who were tough and daring in the ways many of the men who had gone before them were tough and daring. These women were even slightly dangerous. The difference between them and their little sisters like Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is that they were -- although wryly funny when appropriate in a way we recognize if we've read the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald -- far more serious. And romance was there, but it was secondary in their lives.
Each of these "heroines" (if that's the right word for them. I'd like to get rid of the gender definition and just call them "heros") lives in a city that was as much a character in the book as any of the human characters. These cities laugh, cry, get kicked in the gut, and bounce back with a vengeance. I love cities that do that in the fiction I read.
The three authors to whom I am referring are Sue Grafton (another we read for the CT mystery book club), Linda Barnes, and Sara Paretsky. Their female investigators are, respectively, Kinsey Millhone, Carlotta Carlyle, and V. I. Warshawski. Their cities are Santa Barbara (yes, we know it's Santa Barbara, even though it appears incognito), Boston, and Chicago. Of these three, if you'd asked me back in 1990 which to read, I would have said, "Linda Barnes." For some reason (maybe because of Boston?) I was most into Barnes. (You have to understand what I mean by that. With the exception of reading through Agatha Christie when I was a teen, until I became a member of the CT mystery book discussion group, I wasn't a big reader of mysteries. I read Barne's first two books, got hooked, and waited as each of the next three came out to read them. Then, I stopped.) I'd read a couple of Grafton's books and stopped. And I hadn't read any Paretsky.
Why hadn't I read Paretsky? I can't answer that question. Everyone who knew me and had read her was busy recommending her to me, and I kept meaning to read her. Well, I've been meaning to read her for (can it really be?) about 25 years now. I want to thank the folks in CT for kicking me in the butt and getting me, finally, to read her.
I come to this sort of book not expecting great writing, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Peretsky actually writes quite well. No, it's not poetry. I didn't find myself wanting to quote her, but it's seamless. The writing didn't distract in such a way, either because it was so riddled with grammatical errors or so obviously an attempt at blending genre fiction with literary fiction, that it kept me from focusing on the story. And story is what I do expect from this sort of book.
Does Peretsky deliver story? Absolutely! I was afraid, at first, that she wouldn't. The book begins at a media event, a party at a bar (I think it's a restaurant bar, but it was hard to tell), that was quite confusing. In fact, I read the first 5 or so pages twice and kept referring back to them to try to get people straight. Paretsky gave us quite a lot of crucial information in that opening scene, but I found it hard to concentrate in that atmosphere.
(In writing this, I'm realizing that maybe she's a better writer than I thought. I mean, isn't that what a crowded bar scene is: confusing? Isn't it a place where we are often overwhelmed with information? Information that's hard to keep straight, because we are typically sipping a few alcoholic drinks when we visit them?)
Mercifully, Peretsky didn't keep us at the bar until dawn. She quickly gets us out of the bar and to the streets, where, while taking a short cut, we stumble across an almost-dead body. An IQ of 180 is not needed to realize that this tiny woman lying unconscious on the street will soon become The Body.
Is it original that our friend V. I. Warshawski finds herself being accused of and framed for this murder? No. Not at all. Pick up 2 mysteries, and I guarantee you that at least one of them will be about a protagonist who is being accused of murder. What is original is the way Paretsky chooses to use this standard plot, which is, basically (and I'm not really giving anything away here. After all, the book's title is Hard Time) to throw Warshawski into jail (and not because she's believed to be guilty of the murder. But I've said enough. I won't give away anymore of that part of the story).
Here's where we get to the crux of why I so loved this book. If only it were made into a movie (and I say that only because I know how few people actually read and that most who do probably don't need Paretsky's lessons). Paretsky does a brilliant job of bringing to life the horrors and corruption in the prison system in America. I happen to know quite a lot about this subject, both from having edited books about it and because I know someone who is living the horrors of it now.
Peretsky paints a very real portrait here, and I'm clapping loudly at her attempt to exhibit it to a general audience. In case you've read the book and are wondering: yes, it's true that phone companies have monopolies in prison systems where no one can call in, and prisoners are stuck paying whatever the company decides to charge per minute to call out (need I tell you these rates are outrageous?). Yes, everything that can be purchased in the commissary costs way more than it costs those of us on the outside. Prison guards abuse their charges, and there are those guards who seem to have chosen their "professions" specifically so they can get away with actions on the inside that would have them locked up behind the bars they so carefully "guard" were they to commit them outside.
My focus has always been on the racism in our prison system, that and the huge corporate aspect of it (prison is a major money-making business, which is why so many of our Republican politicians are so big on cracking down on crime. They don't really care about keeping everyone safe. They care about the money generated by keeping our prisons overcrowded). What I liked about this book is how it focused on the sexism, the victimization of women behind bars. I don't know why I needed a fictional story to have my eyes opened to this aspect of the system, but apparently I did.
The actual mystery in this book became, for me, secondary to the tale of life in prison. I'm not saying that getting to the bottom of exactly why this woman wound up dead wasn't interesting -- it was. Believe me, it was -- but fighting injustice became as key for me as it did for Warshawski. On some level, we know the injustice won't go away, but still, we hope we can fight it. If you know nothing about The American Prison System, Inc., read this book. It will open your eyes.
Meanwhile, I'm impressed with Paretsky and plan to read more (I say that all the time, huh?).