Sara Paretsky (pah-REHT-skee) is credited with creating the first hard-boiled woman detective in American fiction. Born in Iowa, she moved with her family to eastern Kansas when she was very young. Growing up in the 1950’s, Paretsky confronted traditional gender roles, not only in the community but also at home. The only girl of five children, she received little encouragement for her writing from her family, even though at age eleven she published a story in American Girl. She reports that as a teenager she seldom spoke above a whisper because, as she wrote in an article for The New York Times, “so fearful I was of the criticism that dogged almost anything I said or did.” Expected to marry and raise children rather than pursue a career or attend college, Paretsky financed her own education, while her parents provided tuition for her four brothers. Her father, a professor and scientist, did not believe that girls were worth educating.
Paretsky enrolled at the University of Kansas and majored in political science. When she was nineteen, she was greatly influenced by a summer spent as a community service worker in Chicago. At the same time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was organizing supporters in a nearby neighborhood in an attempt to gain open housing and equal pay for minorities. Deeply concerned by the poverty and oppression she witnessed, Paretsky determined to write about the lives of people whose voices went unheard. She abandoned the romantic tales she had composed since childhood in favor of stories about people on the margins of society. However, she had yet to acquire enough confidence in her own voice to share her writing with others.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in 1967, she moved to Chicago and began doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, motivated more by a need to prove her intelligence to her family than by scholarly interest. She continued to write creatively, publishing in 1973 a short story about a woman so trapped in her role as housewife and mother that she escapes into madness. Paretsky also read mysteries by the dozens and started to think about creating a woman detective.
In 1976, Paretsky married Courtenay Wright, a physicist, and after completing her Ph.D. in 1977, began working as a marketing manager for an insurance company, Continental National America (CNA). However, she remained determined to write detective fiction and resolved to complete a novel within the next year. To facilitate her efforts, she enrolled in a writing course at Northwestern University, where mystery writer Stuart Kaminsky was teaching. With Kaminsky’s encouragement, she completed Indemnity Only, which is dedicated to him.
Indemnity Only challenged the traditions of the detective fiction genre, and Paretsky’s strong and outspoken protagonist seemed a direct response to her rigid upbringing. V. I. Warshawski, a licensed detective rather than an amateur sleuth, solves crimes, resorts to violence, and even rescues the man in her life. While fiercely independent, she is neither a loner nor an emotional stoic. Because V. I. was such an atypical woman character in detective fiction, finding a publisher for the first novel proved difficult for Paretsky. Finally, after two years and thirteen rejections, the book was accepted by Dial Press.
Paretsky completed her next two novels while continuing to work full-time for CNA, experience that provided a wealth of background for writing about the white-collar crimes that are the mainstay of her plots. However, her job required that she travel two weeks each month; at the same time she was managing a household that included three stepsons, singing in a choir, and tutoring children from a Chicago housing project. As a result, her health suffered. In the mid-1980’s she accepted an offer from Disney Studios that allowed her to quit work for CNA. Disney purchased character rights to V. I. and in 1991 released the film V. I. Warshawski, starring Kathleen Turner.
As the Warshawski novels progressed, Paretsky allowed her character to grow older and more complex, while continuing to take on liberal causes and raise political issues. Although she has been criticized for Warshawski’s aggressiveness and outspokenness, Paretsky has refused to soften the character, whose main purpose, she has repeated, is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. In addition, she has taken steps to ensure that Warshawski remains in good company by helping to establish Sisters in Crime, an organization founded in 1987 to support women mystery writers. In 1995 Paretsky took a break from detective fiction and began work on the novel Ghost Country, which has been favorably compared with Chicago writer Nelson Algren’s The Neon Wilderness (1947) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1949).
Not surprisingly, Paretsky has received much favorable attention from feminist literary critics, yet her works are widely popular and have been published in twenty-five languages. She has received a number of awards, including two honorary doctorates, the Marlowe Award from the German Crime Writers Association, and the Silver Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain.