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V.I. Warshawski — tough as ever after 30 years

MIAMI — Thirty years ago, Sara Paretsky published a crime novel about a character that until then hadn't really existed: the tough, wisecracking female private investigator. "In Indemnity Only" — an anniversary edition is due to be published this year — she introduced the world to V.I. Warshawski, the Polish-American detective in Chicago with a law degree, a way with a gun and a taste for a stiff drink and an attractive man.

"It's hard to believe it's been 30 years," admits Paretsky, 64, whose latest Warshawski novel is "Breakdown" (Putnam, $26.95). "The year the first book was published was the first year Chicago allowed women to serve as regular police officers. It happened a year before in New York. ... There were riots. Cop wives picketed and were furious that women would be on patrol with their husbands. They were worried about affairs, of course, but mostly worried that women wouldn't be strong enough partners. But time has shown women are very effective in the police force."

Times change, and so has Warshawski — but only a little. She's 50 in "Breakdown," but she's still not afraid to go toe-to-toe with sleazeballs, bureaucrats or the rich and powerful (and she still looks great in a slinky dress). This time out she has to sort out a dizzying number of investigative threads stemming from a murder in a cemetery. ("My books are like a suitcase that someone tried too put too many clothes in, and there's a bra strap sticking outside," Paretsky muses.)

Unwittingly gathered near the victim lurked a group of tweens obsessed with the popular Carmilla books, horror novels about shapeshifters; they were engaged in an initiation ritual. The case grows even more complex, and Warshawski has to cope with terrified and secretive young girls; a close friend's dangerously shaky mental state; anti-immigration hysteria; her ex-husband and his high-end law firm; a wealthy Holocaust survivor with a secret; politicians with mysterious agendas; and attack-style TV journalism more concerned with ratings than facts.

"I worry about that constantly; it's the heart of the story to me," she says of the latter. "That's the biggest threat to our democracy: the loss of really good, reliable, independent journalism."

If Paretsky, who lives in Chicago, ever gets tired of Warshawski, she has a bright future writing the Carmilla novels. Young adult horror pays pretty well, as Stephenie ("Twilight") Meyer can attest. Paretsky laughs at the idea but hasn't ruled it out; she's already got the pen name, Boadicea Jones.

"My dream is to be able to afford my own airplane so I can take my dog to Europe," she says. "I'd like to go to France, but I'd be lonely without my husband, and he won't go without the dog."

Q: How did you come to create V.I. Warshawski?

A: I think I was born with a chip on my shoulder that matured and sharpened as I got older. I was a huge reader of crime fiction my whole life starting as a teenager in Kansas. I got to be a more sophisticated reader, and I started feeling annoyed that women were defined by their sexuality in fiction. I wanted a woman who could solve problems and have a sex life that didn't make her wicked. Women solve problems in their lives all the time. If they do it in fiction they're mean. I wanted someone who was like me and my friends and had a job that didn't exist for women. V.I. really came out of that.

Q: How do you keep a series going for 30 years?

A: You do it one book at a time! One of the funny things is a couple of years ago I thought, 'I should really create a younger character' — someone who's kind of more hip in the youth culture — and I came up with two different possible detectives. I wrote short stories about them; one was an engineer and the other a police officer, but neither of them grabbed me emotionally in the way V.I. does. It was a marketing exercise, not a work of passion. That's the one thing I'd say is constant for me with V.I.: The level of passion I do feel for the character remains strong.

Q: Does it help you to write the non-series books?

A: It totally does. It cleans her out of my brain for the couple of years I'm working on a different book. Then I can come back thinking about her in a new or fresher way. It's a conundrum for me as a writer that publishing thinks of writers as being brands. It's hard to sign a contract for a book that isn't in the series. A braver writer than I am, like Britain's Liza Cody, says 'Oh, well, I'll do it without a contract and do what I want,' but I'm not quite that gutsy.

Q. Chicago plays a prominent part in your books. Do you think it'll always be a source of inspiration?

A: It's kind of like south Florida for Carl Hiaasen. You couldn't make this stuff up; my political stuff is tame compared to the real Chicago. Sherlock Holmes said that there was more crime happening out in the country than in the city. If he lived in Chicago, he wouldn't have said that.