A little over a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with author Sara Paretsky whose latest novel in the V.I. Warshawski series, Shell Game (William Morrow Books, 2018), was just published. The book — which is centered around private eye V.I. Warshawski, as well as Felix, the nephew of her close friend Lotty Herschel, who finds himself accused of murder after a body turns up in a Cook County forest preserve, and her nieces (Reno and Harmony) who have long been out-of-touch and simultaneously manage to find themselves in a dangerous situation of their own — is a gripping, unpredictable, timely and brilliantly written read. Read on to see what she had to say about the origins of the series and a variety of timely topics that are touched upon in her latest novel — from immigration, the #MeToo movement and women’s rights, the conflict in Syria and the looting of artifacts, racism and discrimination in America today, some of her own influences, favorite works and authors and more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): First of all, I just think Shell Game is such a wonderfully written novel. To begin at the beginning — for those who may not be familiar with the series — I was wondering how you got started and what began the whole series.
Sara Paretsky (SP): The series goes back quite a ways now, which is both wonderful and depressing to think about how much time has gone by. I grew up loving crime fiction but not loving the way women appeared in crime fiction. We either were virgins who couldn’t tie our own shoes without adult supervision, or else we were vamps who were trying to get good boys to do bad things and driving them mad with our excessive sexuality. Nowhere were there women who looked as though they were actual people. So, my first book — which took me eight years to pull together — was an effort to try to change that depiction of women and their lives. I wanted a detective who could solve problems and who didn’t need to be rescued. Someone who could have a sex life and that didn’t make her wicked, and V.I. [Warshawski] came out of that.
AD: And I really do think she comes across as an interesting, multi-faceted character — not one-dimensional.
SP: Thank you. I’m glad she looks that way to an outsider and not just to me, her mom.
AD: It also seems as though it’s a very timely or topical book as well, especially when you consider the larger themes or issues addressed within it. I was wondering how you may decide what to touch on in your writing.
SP: I don’t set out wanting to write about topical issues. Unfortunately, that’s always on my mind as I’m writing. I’m always sort of taken aback when people aren’t paying attention to the world around them, because I think I pay too much attention and those kinds of things do bleed into the books. When I started, I was trying to focus more on white collar crime. I had an MBA and worked for CNA Insurance here in Chicago. It’s a big, multinational financial institution. A lot of my daily work life was around issues of white collar crime, fraud — those kinds of things. That’s not often written about in crime fiction. So, a lot of the earlier books came out of the kinds of things you had to be aware of if you were in financial services — though not anything I specifically worked on when I was with the insurance company. Then, from there, it spread to dealing with some of these other kinds of issues, but often with a nod to the insurance industry. In Shell Game, there are these issues about performance bonds — which is the insurance you buy to repay you if the contractor does not, in fact, perform what they were supposed to do. So, it’s often that kind of nod to my old life.
AD: Speaking of white collar crime and fraud, I thought it’s interesting you touch on the whole thing with Rest EZ, which is a payday loan company in your book. I feel like it’s not something most people think about — or perhaps it’s just my perspective.
SP: No. I don’t think we do. It was a friend of mine who is a lawyer who does a lot of work with people who are kind of at the bottom of the financial heap who drew my attention to it. There are some states where there’s no limit to how much interest you can charge and how deep in debt people can get. It’s kind of terrifying.
AD: Speaking of police, you also discuss corruption within the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. I do feel like I should note that I believe the vast majority of individuals in law enforcement are good people who are in the line of work they are in to protect the communities they serve. I don’t think I can stress that enough. The majority of officers are good people, and I think they often don’t get the credit they deserve for putting their lives on the line for us every day, day after day. That said, your book does touch on the perhaps seedier parts of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department history and the few bad apples — emphasis on few — that may have existed, just as they may exist anyplace. I thought that was interesting as well.
SP: I agree and I know a number of really wonderful Chicago Police officers. With this kind of a book, you have to have conflict. You know, there are also some good cops in this book. Some of them are people who’ve been in the series for a long time — like Lieutenant Finchley, who has been a part of the series for years and is a good, decent guy. The Sheriff’s Department is much better and more professional than it used to be. Easily as recently as twenty years ago, it was easy to become a part-time deputy if you were politically connected, and there were part-time deputies who also had connections to the mob. Now they’ve really made it a professional force, though I think there’s still a kind of distrust that lingers among some citizens who wonder just how trustworthy those changes are.
AD: You also touch on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, and the way in which it increasingly seems to be used under the Trump administration.
SP: Yeah. That’s a really hot button topic for me. You know, I belong to another generation. I was born shortly after the end of the second World War. Except for my grandparents, who came before 1920 — The first U.S. crackdown on immigration, the first formal laws, were in 1924. The Senators who passed them specifically singled out Jews, Greeks and Italians as being sickly people who were a drag on the U.S. economy and shouldn’t be allowed to emigrate. My entire family in Europe was obliterated in the Holocaust because the U.S. just slammed its doors shut to immigrants from that part of the world. So, when I see us doing this — when I see us putting children in what to me look very much like concentration camp settings — it is intolerable to me. Then when I read that the Secretary of Education has a financial stake in the private companies that are building and managing these detention centers, it’s not a good thing.
AD: I can certainly relate because my grandmother was in a concentration camp and my grandfather was in a labor camp. He actually managed to escape from the labor camp, was found by some Russian soldiers and then fought alongside them to defeat the Germans. Anyway, I feel the same way you do. The way they’re handling the whole immigration thing — separating parents and children and holding them in these facilities — is not something that I ever thought I’d see this country doing. Certainly not in this day and age, after all that has happened and all that we should have learned.
SP: I agree. I guess I feel so strongly and so emotionally about that kind of issue that it just ends up making its way into the books. It’s not that I started writing Shell Game thinking ‘Here’s my chance to put in my two cents about ICE.’ It was more that that’s the way my brain worked when thinking about the storyline I was working on.
AD: And it really is such an important issue. I certainly don’t want to make it seem as though there is rampant racism or discrimination going on in this country, because though we still have a long way to go and things are far from perfect, we have come quite a long way from where we were. However, there still are those who are engaging in racist and discriminatory behavior, even in 2018, which is — to say the very least — extremely troubling to me. It shouldn’t be occurring at all. Speaking of which, there are some characters in your book — refugees from Syria — who encounter discrimination right here in modern-day Chicago.
SP: I agree with you that we’ve come a long way and that we still have a long way to go. I just hope we survive a president who thinks that calling himself a white nationalist is a good thing.
AD: Sadly, given the source, I can’t say I was entirely surprised. However, when I heard him say that, it was still horrifying to me. That’s another one of the things that you never would’ve thought you would hear the president say. Yet, here we are. Fortunately, I think that the vast majority of people in this country reject that kind of ideology.
What I also found interesting is that it kind of delves into the family dynamic as well. Honestly, it’s kind of horrifying how detached the uncle, a wealthy lawyer, seems to be when his own family members are in a desperate situation and are, in fact, in danger.
SP: I mean, he’s almost too horrible, but I love bringing him in. This is the fourth book where he’s come along and been a major pill. I thought that at the end of this book he should be disbarred, but then I thought ‘No, no. I need him to continue in his high-priced lawyer’s suite for V.I. to lock horns with again on another occasion.’ I’m amazed at how truly stupid people who are in very powerful positions are. He kind of exemplifies that, and V.I. is like ‘Oh, God. What does it say about me that I was married to him for twenty-six months?’
AD: He really creates many of the problems he goes though — and, for that matter, many of the problems his family goes through, though he certainly tries to blame others.
SP: Well, he did. He definitely let himself pretend he didn’t know what was going on. I also think that is very typical of people who are making money out of the misery of other people. You know, he has these clients who are skating very close to the edge of the law — and certainly over the edge of morality and decency — but he can persuade himself he’s their lawyer and therefore has to look out for their interests. He can’t pay attention to these other issues of morality and whatnot. You know, no matter how miserable a scoundrel in public life may be, there are always plenty of people who want to be that person’s lawyer.
AD: Which makes you wonder. I can’t imagine wanting to defend him or, for that matter, his clients. What’s more, he seems to feel he’s in the right and knows the law better than V.I. does. He feels as though he’s kind of above it, somehow, even though he’s clearly on the wrong side of things. It’s just interesting that he then dares to challenge her knowledge.
SP: Right. I think especially in this Me Too era, we’re seeing how hard it can be many times for women to get paid attention to and, in a way, that’s kind of the essence of my detective. She forces people to listen to her. She’s never going to be like Dirty Harry, but the fact that she’s willing to say what people don’t want to have revealed creates a lot of violent reactions. First it’s like ‘Let the little woman talk and don’t listen to her,’ but she keeps talking and finally just triggers this kind of blow-up reaction.
AD: For sure. You certainly see that kind of violent response from the billionaire businessman in your book, Gervase Kettie, when he has that confrontation with her in his office building. It’s instantly clear that the man is not only also on the wrong side of things, much as is the case with V.I.’s ex-husband, but that he’s also this massive misogynist. I feel that’s just the perfect example and I just found it really disturbing when Kettie gets violent with her and threatens her. It seems like there’s this violent reaction towards her, primarily because she is female. He has essentially zero respect for women — a disturbing disdain, really.
SP: I used to think these issues had more or less been resolved, but now I have nieces who are in the workforce and find themselves not being attended to. Thirty years have gone by since I was first trying to fight these battles, and I think I’m going to die before all of this is going to be resolved. That makes me sad.
AD: Well, I think that the movement has at least raised the whole issue of women’s rights again and really brought the whole thing to the fore, into society’s collective consciousness. That’s the first step. Getting the majority of people to recognize there’s an ongoing issue and that the issue needs to be resolved and that everyone needs to play their part to help resolve it — whether male or female.
SP: But we still have Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. So, as you said, we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
AD: Actually, I just saw a segment of The View. Jeff Flake was the guest. From my perspective, it seemed he was, in essence, saying he voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court even though he couldn’t be sure that the accusations against him were false. Personally, I find that to be pretty reprehensible. If you think a man or woman may be guilty of a crime — you feel that they were not definitively proven innocent or guilty — why would you vote to confirm him or her to the highest court in the land to rule on the most important cases? To me, that’s an appalling idea. Yet he apparently also lacks self-awareness, since he seems to consider himself a good example of what a public servant ought to be.
So, I think that the Me Too movement and talking about women’s rights is extremely important — especially in light of everything that has come out. As you’ve alluded to, I feel like women haven’t really been paid equally or treated equally in the workforce or, quite honestly, in society. I really hope that’s going to change sooner rather than later, and it’s up to all of us to change it. There’s no reason for it to have happened in the first place or for it to have continued for as long as it has, much less for it to continue on for yet another decade or two or whatever it may be.
SP: I hope so.
AD: Switching gears a bit, I think we all know — or most of us are aware, anyway — that there’s an ongoing conflict in Syria. Obviously, you touch on Bashar al-Assad and the conflict and what’s going on, as well as how it has impacted people over there.
SP: I think we lose track of that and that worries me as well. I can’t even remember the numbers — but the numbers of Syrians who have died and who have become refugees is something like half the population. Just imagine if 150 million Americans were killed or forced from their homes. You can’t even comprehend it. I also feel as though we Americans have some culpability there, because the invasion of Iraq did destabilize the region.
AD: And I don’t know how common it may be, but you not only touch on the conflict itself, but also on the looting — this black market for looted artifacts.
SP: That was one of the places where the book started. It was because the New Yorker did a big story, not just on looted artifacts from the Middle East, but on stolen art from many places around the world. It was about how it was being bought by these billionaire collectors on the black market. They feel they’re above the law in every way, and so they kind of relish having stolen art instead of art they’ve acquired in legitimate marketplaces. Then, I learned the Department of Defense shares a lot of its satellite imagery with museums — like the Oriental Institute here in Chicago and the Louvre in Paris, as well as a couple of others — that have catalogues, specifically, of Middle Eastern art and artifacts. By giving them their satellite images, they can actually see people in the act of looting specific archeological sites. These museums can then be on the lookout for when objects from those sites appear and, if someone tries to sell them, they can then alert INTERPOL and the FBI and so on and try to get it restored to where it belongs. So, there is a fair amount of that. ISIS is the most organized, because they use it to fund their warriors, but just ordinary people trying to make a quick buck are doing it, too. So, it’s a huge black market business.
AD: Is there anything else you wanted to discuss? It’s your book after all, so I didn’t want to omit anything you may feel is important.
SP: I think we’ve covered a lot of ground and you’ve pinpointed the things in the book that were the most important to me. For people who have been with the series for a long time, the doctor, Lotty Herschel, has always been an important part of the series. She is, in some ways, the representative of my own Jewish family in the book. She’s a sophisticated professional. She was an immigrant and a refugee. She was sent to England with the Kindertransport. So, her brother’s grandson, Felix, is the young man who puts the story in motion when he is suspected of murdering this person found in the woods.
One of the things about the series is when I started it, I thought I would have the characters age in real-time because their history was very much part of the history of the big events of the 20th century. As time has passed, as I’ve become older myself, I haven’t wanted them to age. I haven’t wanted them to die or have Alzheimer’s or any of the other ills that happen to many people as we get old. I want my detective to stay at an age where she can still be a physical presence. So, even though it’s anachronistic now for Lotty Herschel to still be an active surgeon — if she really was sent to England in 1939, she’d be much too old to be an active surgeon in reality — I have decided to suspend those real-life laws of age and aging for my characters. I feel like there’s too much grief in my own life at my age with too many losses of people — either to death or to mental incapacitation. So, in my fictional work, people are going to stay where they are for a while.
AD: Last but not least, I was wondering about who you might consider your own influences? What are some of your favorite works or favorite authors? What are you reading?
SP: I should know the answer to that question, because it’s not the first time I’ve been asked it. I’m a very eclectic reader. When I started writing, there were two writers in crime fiction — which I read a lot of — who really helped me shape my character and get the courage to write about about her. One was Amanda Cross, which was the pen name for Carolyn Gold Heilbrun. She didn’t have a detective, but she had a woman professor who got involved in crimes and solved them. She was a great character for those of us who came of age in the sixties. Then there was a man writing in Indianapolis, Michael Lewin, who had a male private detective but much softer boiled, so to speak, than the stereotypical noir detective of the forties and fifties. So, crime writers really helped shape how I thought about my character as I was starting to write. I read memoirs of people who’ve dealt with extreme situations, like Russian poets who survived being in the gulag. One of my particular heroes wrote under the pen name of Abram Tertz. His real name is Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky. He wrote a memoir called Goodnight! That book had — and continues to have — an impact on how I think about resistance to extreme situations and what a writer’s job is.
Sara Paretsky is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty previous novels, including the renowned V.I. Warshawski series. She is one of only four living writers — alongside John le Carré, Peter Lovesey, and Lawrence Block — to have received both the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Britain. She lives in Chicago with her husband.
Shell Game is available in hardcover and as an e-book now from William Morrow Books. For more information about Sara and her work, please visit her website. You may also find her on Goodreads, Twitter and Facebook.