Monday, January 02, 2006

Blacklist by Sara Paretsky

Just in case a reader is new to Sara Paretsky, or thinks that perhaps her allegiances have somehow changed since her last novel, her heroine, V.I. Warshawski, lets us know in the early pages of her new novel Blacklist just what she thinks of the super wealthy, even when she happens to be in their employ.
I have this idea about people who live with enormous wealth and great position—that because they get exactly what they want when and how they want it, they believe they’re entitled to privilege. And I imagine such people think the rest of us exist only at their pleasure. That means it’s all right to summon us in the middle of the night, or lie to us, or do whatever else takes their fancy at the moment, because to them our lives have no existence away from their orbit.
Tough and gritty as always, this blue collar P.I. finds herself caught up in a case that takes her back to the McCarthy hearings as well as landing her smack in the middle of the consequences of the so-called Patriot Act. No doubt in the opening lines I quoted, Paretsky has a certain president in mind as well as a number of other folks in high places.

Although I like to read the occasional mystery, it is not often that I would take the time to review one for KBOO listeners, but this novel (and Paretsky in general) is an exception to the rule. Although the novel is in many ways depressing in that it points out just how dangerous it is to be or look like an Arab in America, and just how perilous the eroding of our civil rights is at present (without even taking into the account all that we don’t know about who is looking at us, and when, and for what reason), still I find it encouraging that even mystery writers find it imperative to warn Americans of where we stand in history and what we have lost or are losing. Of course, it is no accident that Paretsky is drawing parallels between the atrocities committed by McCarthy and others during the reign of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and the present activities unleashed by the Patriot Act. She knows that we are quite good at spotting the dangers and immorality of the past, but not so good at removing the blinders that keep us from seeing the present. Even popular movies like Good Night and Good Luck now spotlight for us the excesses of HUAC, but what is needed (and far more dangerous) is to shine even a bit of light on the lies and obfuscations of the present.

Interesting too how similar the rhetoric can be: McCarthy and his cohorts bellowing about known communist front organizations when nothing of the sort was known, and present officials (from small town sheriffs to FBI and CIA operatives) yelling about known terrorists when they know little or nothing and tell us even less.

This novel begins innocently enough. V.I. is called to work by a rich employer who pays her a retainer to check on an allegedly abandoned mansion which seems to have suspicious lights and movement in the middle of the night. But before she knows it, she is investigating the apparent murder of a African American writer who was writing a book about a blacklisted dancer from the fifties. That the apparent murder occurred in a very rich neighborhood, and that the local authorities seem anxious to explain it away as a suicide is plenty to get Warshawski’s attention, and when the rich begin to huddle and, with the help of the authorities, to block her investigation, she is fully engaged.

Paretsky sees the near-hysteria in all levels of law enforcement since 911 and how quick officers are from all levels to shoot first and question later, to arrest first and find charges later, and to generally trample a person’s civil rights “if they don’t like his race, creed or place of national origin.”

Perhaps it will seem to some readers just too coincidental that the murder mansion and the life of a frightened, run-away Egyptian boy (a dishwasher in an exclusive Chicago high school) get intertwined, but Paretsky wants to let us know just how much she knows about HUAC, and how much more dangerous the present cessation of rights is. Even the usually fearless Vic Warshawski admits that what she would like to do is lie down and sleep for a hundred years, “Until these times of fear and brutality passed,” but what is required is not sleep but vigilance and protest. She finds out quickly that even to ask “what has happened to the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” is enough to make her a suspected terrorist. Change the color of her skin or her place of birth, and she would not even be able to tell others just how much trouble she is in.

Like all of Paretsky’s novels, this is a long and complex one, and would be worth reading just for the story involved. But as a novel of the times, it is even more important and more deserving of a careful reading. Her heroine sums it up well when she is accused of not taking 911 seriously enough.

“Do you think it’s a joke, what happened in New York, what our troops are doing in Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf?” asks an angry law officer.

I looked up at him. ‘I think this is the most serious thing that has happened in my lifetime. Not just the Trade Center, but the fear we’ve unleashed on ourselves since, so we can say that the Bill of Rights doesn’t matter anymore. ... if the Bill of Rights is dead my life, my faith in America, will break.’
Finding that her files, her computer, even her Rolodex have been tampered with, she barks out, “Where the hell do you get off, harassing a citizen without probable cause?”, she gets an answer from the U.S. Attorney that she both knows and fears, “We don’t need probable cause.” All they have to do is utter the words Terrorist and Patriot in the same breath.

I should mention that besides being a fine writer of mystery novels, Paretski also holds a PhD in history and an MBA in finance. She uses all of her skills in this warning masquerading as a novel.

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