Another day, another book review. I was up until 2:00 this morning finishing Breakdown, the new V. I. Warshawski mystery by Sara Paretsky. I like Paretsky a lot. She writes well, and also she kind of wears it on her sleeve that she’s a liberal. Paretsky and Carl Hiaasen, another liberal who writes crime novels, are aces in my book.
As a sleuth, Warshawski is annoying but endearing. Her personal life intrudes too much into her cases, but Paretsky is nowhere near as self-indulgent in the sleuth’s-personal-life department as Sue Grafton. Grafton’s books are an unreadable mess, largely for that very reason.
After tumbling into bed, I started mulling over the loose ends in the plot of Breakdown. There’s a wicked assortment. If you don’t like spoilers, please stop reading.
We never do learn how the bad guy tracked Leydon Ashford into the church, where he tossed her over a railing and bounced her head on the stone floor. We can guess why he needed to search her purse, but it’s not at all clear how her purse ended up so far from the body. Nor is it clear why, after failing to find the newspaper clipping in her purse, he doesn’t take the trouble to break into her apartment and search it. It’s not even clear which bad guy tossed her over the railing. Could have been the main bad guy, could have been his slimy assistant. That’s probably not important, but it’s a loose end. We never learn which of the bad guys was spying on or in touch with Miles Wuchnik’s sister. (Remember that mysterious phone call?) We do learn, in passing that it was the main bad guy who ran down Tommy’s mother and killed her, but his motivation for taking such a major risk — hey, somebody could have jotted down his license number, though nobody did — is no more substantial than tissue paper.
After the bad guy kills Xavier, we’re told offhand that rope marks were found on Xavier’s wrists, which meant he didn’t commit suicide after all, somebody tied him up and forced him to take the poison pills. But Xavier was a guard at a security complex, so it’s not at all clear why he would passively have put up with such treatment. Also, before he died he texted his lady friend, confessing, so he couldn’t have been too far gone after he was untied. Also, the bad guy inexplicably doesn’t kill the girl in the trunk, though killing her is an important part of his evil scheme. Meanwhile, Xavier’s lady friend has a completely coincidental link to the other plot thread, a link that has no purpose other than to put a couple of letters from Eastern Europe into Warshawski’s hands, letters that fortuitously reveal the historical background of the other plot thread.
The bad guy spills his guts to Warshawski, naturally, before killing her. They always do that. She’s helpless, having been drugged, but inexplicably he fails to finish the job. (That’s a major spoiler, by the way. The reader is supposed to think, for about six pages, that Warshawski has died, making this the last novel in the series. Adds to the suspense, you know.) All he has to do is hold her head under water until she drowns — but no, he has to be clever. Instead he throws her into a convenient rowboat and then flips the rowboat upside down, which conveniently allows her to keep her head above water (while far too drugged to swim) without his seeing it as he walks away. Does this make a lick of sense? No, it does not.
Somewhere along the way the bad guy has bribed the head of a secure facility, to the tune of $5 million over the course of a few years, to keep an eye on a mentally retarded man in the facility, a man named Tommy who poses no conceivable threat to the bad guy except that Tommy has in his possession a newspaper clipping that nobody knows about and whose import even Tommy doesn’t see.
The reason the first corpse ended up where it did is pretty darn vague too. Paretsky explains it, sort of — but if Warshawski hadn’t come along and found the corpse, in a rainstorm at night, in a place she arrived at entirely by coincidence, there would have been no link between the corpse and the girls’ book club, because the girls would have finished their silly ritual in the graveyard and gone home. The corpse might not have been found for days. So the idea that the bad guys chose that setting for the murder in order to cause trouble for the girls and their families falls very flat.
I enjoyed the book. I was up until 2:00 in the morning finishing it. But man, Paretsky is one hell of a tap dancer! If you’ll forgive a mixed metaphor, she needed some fancy footwork to bolt together a solid plot using such flimsy reeds. Erle Stanley Gardner would be proud.