- A Favourite Among Favourites:Sara Paretsky's Guardian Angel
To consider a favourite novel is to experience sweet pain. Trying on each choice feels a little like small betrayal of those who nearly made the grade. Choosing a favourite author, let alone a favourite novel is a bit like choosing a favourite student and one fears to admit in public that yes, you do have a favourite, you are human, and you are not perfect.
To choose one's favourite novel is therefore a bitter indulgence and the journey to a choice is as full of twists, turns and analysis as the reflections on the novel itself. I choose a Sara Paretsky novel, and I considered cheating, by discussing the whole V.I. Warshawski series, but no, the challenge accepted was to choose and reflect on one novel, so one it must be. Rather like a petulant child who is made to choose only one chocolate bar in the shop window, I choose Guardian Angel.1 This just pipped the 1985 Killing Orders,2 but then I realised I have a soft spot for the latter because I won a signed copy of the 2017 reprint,3 which Ms Paretsky rather foolishly but endearingly mailed to me herself, with her home address on it. Luckily, I am a respecter of privacy and while I cherish the bubble wrapped envelope and make sure the address is always legible, I would never do anything about it.
Guardian Angel was probably the first or second of the Paretsky novels I read. It is certainly not the first in the series, and much of its quality in my mind is probably linked to my circumstances when I bought it, second hand in a charity bookshop in Ashford, Kent, with my sister as we began the true journey into adulthood, having both of us recently bought our first homes. It is therefore perennially linked to learning to be a strong, independent woman who can make her own way in the world, just as the main character, V.I. Warshawski does.
V.I. (Victoria Iphigenia; one of the worst kept secrets in Chicago) goes by her initials or Vic, as she is a female private detective in the very male world of Chicago industry. Her bread and butter is not divorce and death, though these play heavily in the series, but industrial espionage, fraud and the relationship between this and organised crime.
Paretsky has played with time over the years; in the early Warshawski books, Vic was given the birth year of 1950, making her 42 by the publication [End Page 47] of Guardian Angel. Yet, in the latest offering (2020), she appears to be in her late fifties. Vic, therefore, while acknowledging that she has to use her talents in less physical ways, has only aged maybe 25 to thirty years in the last thirty-eight! This is perhaps part of the charm of the way the character is drawn, and not half as flagrant a disregard of the passage of time as Janet Evanovich takes towards the immortal hamster, Rex, in her Stephanie Plum novels. Paretsky has admitted moving Vic's birth year from 1950 to 1957, but even so, she has had to slow Warshawski's age a little in the last 20 years, as however fit the character may keep herself, the physical demands portrayed have had to be scaled back over the years. However, as the 70-something Paretsky has been known to tell her fans of her exploits breaking into closed Chicago parks by scaling the hoardings with her dog in tow,4 it is unsurprising that anything Sara can do, Vic can do better.
It is perhaps this attitude to age that makes Guardian Angel my choice for favourite. With its underworld dealings, it has the feel of Film Noir, a real latter day Dashiel Hammett edge which is all about the main character quietly and doggedly going about her business, never to be underestimated and never to be counted out. While Hammett's main character appears to be a fish out of water for reasons of class, Vic is a woman in a man...