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A WOMAN OF MYSTERY : Like V.I. Warshawski, her hard-boiled Chicago detective, Sara Paretsky goes through life with her elbows out and her heart on her sleeve.

December 22, 1991|SUSAN FERRARO | California native Susan Ferraro is a New York-based writer who is an avid mystery reader.

IT IS THE DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING, an unseasonably warm afternoon in Chicago, and Sara Paretsky is almost happy. Almost.

The best-selling author of the V. I. Warshawski murder mysteries, Paretsky has recovered from the exhausting, maddening publicity that preceded the summer premiere--and box-office bomb--of "V.I. Warshawski," starring Kathleen Turner. Now it is comeback time: Paretsky's new novel, "Guardian Angel," will hit the bookstores in January. Her face, pale and drawn last spring, is smooth. Her raucous, explosive laugh, a cross between a bray and a whinny, is softer, almost giggly. At home, in her office crammed with papers and books, she is wearing a black sweater and jeans that are spattered with mud from walking her dog.

For Paretsky, the worst thing about the movie was not the reviews (although she felt bad for Turner, whom she likes and admires), but the misery of watching other creative minds working over and changing her character. "Last spring, I was going through a very rough time, because I felt I was being invaded by the movie process," Paretsky admits. Then she saw the finished cut: "I felt enormous relief. I mean, I wish it had been a better movie, that it hadn't had that adolescent humor. But I felt the movie was so different from what I do . . . that my V.I. is intact."

Yet chronic doubts about her own talent linger. "I'm trying to recapture a sense of myself as a writer," she says, choosing her words slowly, as if they hurt. She is already a month late in starting her eighth V.I. novel. A series character is "the story you tell yourself every night, your secret playmate," she observes. "What I'm worried about is what I'll write when I write a non-mystery novel," something she may attempt after V.I. mystery No. 8.

And then there's the new book, No. 7: Paretsky has gone from hating it ("I always hate them, but I hate this one more," she said in April) to annoyance: Her publisher, Delacorte Press, has scheduled a 14-city tour. "I'll be home for only six days in February," she says morosely. "This book is gone for me now--it's going to be horrible to go back and be intimate with it. I hate reading my stuff, and people sort of expect it. One of the things I do at readings is rewrite it, because now I can see all the infelicities of style."

Can this self-deprecating woman be Sara Paretsky, who spearheaded a revolution in women's popular fiction during the '80s, bursting into print nine years ago with "Indemnity Only"? Her main character is V. I. (Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawski, a hard-boiled, hard-hitting female private eye in Chicago whose wise-guy patter and glorious self-confidence turned the mystery genre inside out. Yet Paretsky herself remains curiously conflicted--one part V.I. chutzpah, one part Paretsky reserve. "It's easy for me to speak out for someone else's causes, but if it's my own, it's very hard," she says, pronouncing each word carefully after the other. "V.I. says and does things that perhaps I'm strong enough to think, but I might not be strong enough to do."

The ineffable but stubborn tension that exists between the writer's real self and her fictional alter ego--and the energy that springs to the page when she lets V.I. loose--is central to Paretsky's success: V.I. says and does things that a lot of people might want to but don't. In "Blood Shot," published in 1988, she asks a man why he is angry with his daughter, and he answers that she "got herself pregnant."

" 'Louisa got herself pregnant?' I echoed. 'With a turkey baster in the basement, you mean? There wasn't a man involved? . . . You're disgusting, Djiak. You're terrified of women. You hate your own wife and daughter. No wonder Louisa turned to someone else for a little affection. Who was it to get you so exercised? Your local priest?' "

Djiak lunges across the table, hits her with his fist and insults her mother in predictably ugly language.

"I got up slowly," V.I., as narrator, says, "and went over to stand in front of him, my face close enough to smell the beer on his breath. 'You may not insult my mother, Djiak. Any other garbage from the cesspool you call a mind I'll tolerate. But you ever insult my mother again in my hearing, I will break your neck.' "

Tough and independent, V.I. (only paternalistic throwbacks call her Vicki) lives alone and likes it. She packs a gun, drinks Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch and is a Chicago Cubs fan. Sublimely indifferent to what people think of her, she tosses bills in the trash and sleeps with men who take her fancy. V.I. gets beaten up at least once in every book, but not in a woman-as-victim way: She can pulverize a man's jaw with a single blow, and it takes at least two, sometimes four, thugs to overpower her.

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