U.S. Mystery Writers honor Sara Paretsky

Staff writer

Sara Paretsky (contributed photo)
During the 2019 Edgar Allan Poe Awards show on April 25 in New York City, Hyde Park author Sara Paretsky was honored by the Mystery Writers of America with the inaugural Sue Grafton Memorial Award for her 2018 book “Shell Game.”

“Sue Grafton and I published our (first) books in the same year, 1982. We didn’t know each other. She lived in Santa Barbara, California and I lived here. We both, out of nowhere, created private eyes who were strong women in our books. We were seen as part of a pair in the bigger world,” said Paretsky about her relationship with Grafton. “Even though we weren’t personally close, we were so close professionally. We met a lot of times, corresponded and appeared together in a lot of different conferences. She was a few years older than I but she died of a very fast metastasizing cancer two years ago now.

“Her loss is a major loss in my life. So, getting this award for the first time it was given, it felt deeply personal and deeply moving.”

The Kansas-raised writer came to Chicago in 1966 to volunteer with the Civil Rights Movement when she was just 19 years old and an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. It was a very exciting time to be in the city as the movement gained momentum, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Chicago.

“I spent the summer of ’66 here. I was assigned to a program at 70th and Damen. At that time, it was a mostly white, Polish and Lithuanian-American community. We were supposed to do soft propaganda with the kids to educate them that there were other approaches to living in a diverse city than throwing rocks at people,” said Paretsky.

After graduating from college, in the fall of 1968 Paretsky came back to Chicago and started a job as a secretary for the U. of C. She moved to Hyde Park and married a faculty member, to whom she was married for 47 years until he recently died.

Paretsky always loved writing. As a child, she wrote poems and short stories. However, growing up in the 1950s, expectations of what Paretsky could be were limited.

“I grew up in a pretty conservative time and place. I grew up in Kansas in the 1950s, I have four brothers. My parents were very committed to social justice, but they were not interested in equality for girls. The expectations for my life were pretty confined. It had not occurred to me, ever, that I would write for publications,” explained Paretsky.

Since she was in her early 20s, Paretsky thought about a concept to write a crime novel but did not start writing one until she was in her early 30s. As a woman who was swept up by second-wave feminism in the early 1970s, Paretsky knew that she wanted to create women characters who were different from stereotypes created by male crime writers.

“[In crime books] women used their bodies to get good boys to do bad things or they were victims. Women who were not wicked were incapable of tying their shoes without adult supervision,” explained Paretsky. “The famous book that starts it all was ‘The Maltese Falcon’ by Dashiell Hammett published in 1929. The villain, Bridget O’Shaughnessy, used her sexuality to get men to do her bidding and commit crimes so that she can try to get access to jewels that are supposedly hidden inside of a falcon.

“[O’Shaughnessy] became a model for every woman in a private eye novel going forward from that time.”

When creating Detective V.I Warshawski, the heroine featured in 17 books, Paretsky wanted to create a character who was similar to her and her friends.

“I wanted to create a woman character who was like my friends and I doing a job that hadn’t existed for us when we were growing up — namely, being a detective or a private investigator — and meeting the same kind of pushback that we got,” explained Paretsky.

Since Paretsky worked in corporations, she has used her writing to explore the larger social impact of white-collar crime. For “Shell Game,” Paretsky focused on the international market of stolen art. During her research, Paretsky found that wealthy people would store their rare and stolen artifacts in tax heavens located throughout the Caribbean and in some parts of Europe, like Luxemburg and England. Paretsky used that research to create a plot where Warshawski investigates a billionaire who had stolen artifacts, laundered money through a payday loan company and other schemes.

Paretsky often allows villains to get away with their crimes because it happens in reality, “My characters get away with their villainy because they would,” she says. “They have massive amounts of money, they hire all these lawyers and they make these lawsuits go on for years. It’s really hard with all of their shifting finances to pin them down,”

However, readers will be pleasantly surprised to find that the criminal in ‘Shell Game’ does not get away with the crime.

Currently, Paretsky is working on a new book. Her advice to women who want to write crime novels is, “You need to have confidence in your voice. That is not something easy to find. Therefore, you need support for finding your voice. You only need one person, you don’t need a whole room of people. Someone who can help you have the courage to go forward. ”

Paretsky recommends seeking support from Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, where Paretsky was one of the co-founders and first president of the organization.