Fallout (V. I. Warshawski #19), by Sara Paretsky
@@@ (3 out of 5)
In the course of 18 novels by the redoubtable mystery writer Sara Paretsky, courageous Chicago detective V.I. (Vic) Warshawski has come face to face with corruption both public and private in her quixotic crusade to clean up her hometown—and get a life in the process. Now, in the 19th, Vic travels to Lawrence, Kansas, to track down a missing African-American Hollywood star and the young filmmaker accompanying her. The novel represents a homecoming of sorts for Paretsky herself. Lawrence is her hometown. There, her father was a cell biologist at the University of Kansas for decades, and a man whose work is similar is one of the book’s central figures.
Most of the familiar characters surrounding Vic appear in the story at least in passing: her late cousin Boom-Boom Warshawski, a star with the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team; her 90-something neighbor, Mr. Contreras; Lotty Herschel, an eminent physician and a Holocaust survivor; Lotty’s boyfriend, Max Lowenthal; and Vic’s beloved golden retriever, Peppy.
The story opens as impetuous young Bernadine Fouchard, a rising hockey star, comes to Vic demanding that she track down a missing friend, a young African-American man named August Veriden. Someone has broken into the locker where drugs are stored at the gym where August trains. August has disappeared—and is widely blamed for the theft, even though both his home and the gym have been methodically torn apart. It soon becomes clear that the young man has left town with an aging movie star, Emerald Ferring, one of the first Black stars in Hollywood. For unknown reasons, they have headed off to Lawrence, Kansas.
When Vic arrives in Kansas, it doesn’t take her long at all to get into trouble. Outside a bar where she’s gone for information, she stumbles on two women passed out. One is a young college student, the other a woman in her 30s who is clearly the worse for wear from drink and drugs. Her name is Sonia Kiel. Eventually, Vic learns that Sonia is the daughter of a famous microbiologist at the University—but neither he nor his alcoholic wife is willing to lift a finger for their daughter. Then Vic finds the body of another woman lying on the floor of a farmhouse. Dead. The local Sheriff blames Vic for the murder.
Fallout is a complex story that involves not just the microbiologist, his allegedly crazy daughter, and the movie star but also an abandoned Minuteman missile silo, a shadowy agribusiness, the U.S. Army and Air Force, radioactive fallout, a white supremacist group, a missing film, and a young woman who is desperate to know whether her father is the graduate student who worked for Dr. Kiel and then died or went missing in 1983. It’s a little difficult to sort all this out along the way, but a careful read of the text will clear things up before the halfway point.
I’ve enjoyed all the many V. I. Warshawski detective novels I’ve read, but this one doesn’t quite measure up to the rest.