On New Year's Day, 1979, hung over but determined, she started what became "Indemnity Only." She chose the mystery genre, instead of starting off with the big novel about the business world that she had envisioned, because she read crime fiction all the time, and she thought she would be "less likely to fail at it." She liked the idea that in mysteries, at least, there are solutions, and she has never liked me-centered, non-detective fiction: "Excuse the Kansas expression, it makes me puke."
Not that mysteries were perfect. "When I read Chandler for the first time, when I was 22, it really hit me--it just hit me--that if you were a woman who was beautiful and sexual, then you were evil," she says. She found John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels less misogynistic, but "the cure for any woman's problem was to spend a week on the houseboat with Travis," Paretsky observes dryly. "A good orgasm gets rid of incest, child abuse, frigidity--God, what a guy!"
After completing about 70 pages of "Indemnity Only," Paretsky took a course at Northwestern University from veteran mystery writer Stuart Kaminsky. "Men always say that they did something, and women always say that they're lucky, but I was very lucky," she says. Kaminsky took her character seriously and helped her see herself as a writer; he even recommended her to his own agent. When she finished the book, she dedicated it, "For Stuart Kaminsky. Thanks."
"When I first read 'Indemnity Only,' I was blown away. I had never read anything quite like it before," says Sharon M. Rose, editor of "A Suitable Job for a Woman," a quarterly newsletter published in Chattanooga about women in mystery fiction. V.I., for many readers, was the first aggressive, credible, no-nonsense female PI.
There were always smart women sleuths (Miss Marple, Harriet Vane); the '60s saw the arrival of Amanda Cross' professor-sleuth Kate Fansler and a few full-time detectives such as Dorothy Uhnak's New York homicide cop Christie Opara, P.D. James' cerebral and ladylike Cordelia Gray, Marcia Muller's kinder, gentler private investigator Sharon McCone. But six months after V.I. smart-mouthed her way into print, Sue Grafton's equally lippy Kinsey Millhone appeared in "A Is for Alibi." After getting over their surprise, critics declared a trend in tough, sexy female private eyes.
Today there are dozens of female shamuses--created by women--who shoot straight, get hung over, rescue themselves when they get in a jam and burn dinner on those rare occasions when they turn on the stove; their success has made room for softer, funnier female protagonists as well. Among the best-known women mystery writers: Edgar Award winner Julie Smith, Susan Dunlap, Lia Matera, Margaret Maron, Nancy Pickard, Barbara Mertz--and three strong new voices, Patricia Cornwell, Linda Barnes and Sarah Shankman. Although Paretsky ranks among the top 10 mystery sellers at mainstream stores such as Barnes & Noble, it is in specialty stores, such as Sherman Oaks' Scene of the Crime, that Paretsky sells best, usually ranking among the top three sellers, with 1990 sales about equal to Grafton's and trailing only Tony Hillerman's.
Paretsky's feminism took shape at the University of Kansas and hardened at a student meeting in Chicago: "This guy quoted the Stokely Carmichael remark, that 'the position of women in the movement is prone,' " she recalls, still furious after all these years. The remark radicalized her: "I suppose I should send him a thank-you note."
Her activism extends beyond her novels: Paretsky has made appearances at Amnesty International meetings and worked for 20 years (until sidelined by back pain) with the National Abortion Rights Action League of Illinois. These days she's working with the literacy program at the Midwest Women's Center. She also founded Sisters in Crime in 1986, an organization for women mystery writers that now numbers more than 1,600 members on four continents.
The group publishes "Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies," compiled by mystery novelist Linda Grant, based in part on Paretsky's own efforts to publicize her books, and it lent its name to a successful anthology series edited by Marilyn Wallace. Perhaps most significantly, Sisters in Crime tabulated book reviews and found that as of 1988, although women wrote more than a third of mystery fiction, they received less than 20% of the genre's reviews. A letter-writing campaign to editors and newspapers ensued. Nowadays, says Susan Dunlap, a member of the original steering committee and immediate past president, women get about 35% of mystery-review space.
Reminded of her activism, Paretsky shrugs. "I think I have a visceral reaction to all large institutions that try to dominate or control people," she suggests. "Having had a rather authoritarian father, I just have this hypersensitive skin to anyone who thinks that"--she lowers her voice to a growl--" 'You do what I say because I'm telling you to do it.' "