‘Indemnity Only’ by Sara Paretsky (1982)

15Oct09

At a recent book signing hosted by the delightful mystery book store Murder by the Book, I mentioned to the clerk that I thought Sue Grafton’s twice-divorced, no make-up-wearing, junk food-loving sleuth Kinsey Millhone had influenced my becoming a feminist. In response, he recommended that I read Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels, saying that if Grafton was “there” on the spectrum of feminist writers then Paretsky was way over “here.”

I’m not sure by what scale he was measuring because I didn’t find Paretsky’s Indemnity Only to be particularly more feminist than any of Grafton’s novels. In fact, I saw mostly similarities between Kinsey and V.I., known to her friends as Vic, and between Grafton and Paretsky’s approaches to these characters. Kinsey and Vic are outspoken, willful, and self-sufficient women. They are single with at least one divorce under their belt and a rather detached attitude toward dating and men. They exercise regularly, hold their own in a scrape, and can fire a weapon if need be. Both Grafton and Paretsky attempt to treat these women in an ungendered way: they do not limit what their characters can and may do because of their sex, but they do not masculinize them. However, the authors seemingly felt compelled to make them somewhat androgynous, as evidenced by the choice of their characters’ names.

As for their differences, these two fictional P.I.s come from disparate backgrounds. Kinsey has more of a delinquent past, having dropped out of college and then the police force before becoming a private investigator, while Vic graduated from college with a law degree and even practiced as a public defender for a spell before she acquired her P.I. license. These women differ significantly in their concern for their appearance. Kinsey wears essentially the same combo of jeans, turtleneck, and running shoes most of the time and cuts her hair with nail scissors. Vic obviously cares about what she looks like, even though she doesn’t lament much over the extensive facial bruising she acquires in Indemnity Only. She puts together outfits and mentions at one point in the novel that she thought her clothing would get her some attention. While Vic doesn’t seem particularly high maintenance, I must say I missed Kinsey’s nonchalant approach to her looks, and I was a little shocked when Vic mentally criticizes another woman’s flabby upper arms.

I must say that with this novel as an introduction I’m completely apathetic toward the world of V.I. Warshawski and Sara Paretsky’s writing. I didn’t find Vic very likable, which may be purposeful to an extent on Paretsky’s part. Vic certainly feels no need to ingratiate herself to everyone she meets, and I can appreciate that trait as a feminist since it goes against women’s social conditioning. But as the reader, I need to like her to remain involved in the story. I think I was supposed to admire Vic’s determination or something, but instead I found her disagreeable and entitled. I also didn’t understand why Vic dated Ralph. I think Paretsky intended for that relationship to demonstrate Vic’s casual attitude toward sex, which is all well and good, but why would Vic even have casual sex with a man who so obviously thought that a lady couldn’t be a private investigator for realsies? As for Paretsky’s writing style, I disliked that she doled out the solving of the mystery in large chunks, with much of it revealed by the villain monologue-ing at the end of the novel. The crime itself and the people involved weren’t particularly interesting either. I also grew weary of her hamfisted attempts to demonstrate that every man Vic encounters doesn’t think that she can do her job because she is a woman, which is sexist OK?, and this tendency also caused many of the male characters’ voices to sound very similar.

Shouting sexism the loudest does not make Paretsky the most feminist, and it certainly doesn’t make her the superior writer.

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