BLACKLIST, Sara Paretsky's eleventh V.I Warshawski novel, is a continuation of the colorful career of Vicky (V.I.) Warshawski, Private Investigator. Feeling abandoned by absent boyfriend Morrell, a journalist now working in Afghanistan, Warshawski takes on a case for her wealthy client, Darraugh Graham. Graham's mother, Geraldine, lives in a retirement cottage that overlooks her former home in the suburbs of Chicago. Self-appointed family watchdog over the defunct estate, Geraldine sees late-night activity inside Larchmont Hall. Warshawski's job is to investigate and put to rest rumors of a break-in on the grounds.
Her problems compound when she visits the site a second time and apprehends a teenage girl. The two wage a healthy verbal battle. The saucy youngster takes off with Warshawski in pursuit, but is no match for fast young legs. The detective next stumbles into a five-foot deep garden pond and surfaces with a dead body in her grasp.
The novel contains a complicated maze of family names. It might have helped to list the characters in a frontispiece to keep the reader's attention. Two family histories are intertwined, with relationships that stretch backwards several generations. It is a tale of wealthy dowagers, gentlemen and their progeny who conceal secrets from days past.
Larchmont Hall is the setting where old scores are settled with feuding residents who return to confront former ghosts. The animosities go back to the days of the famous McCarthy hearings in Congress that exposed real and would-be Communists. Historical realities of the Cold War period in America are drawn by the fictional characters that represent intellectuals whose lives were ruined by their political associations. The detective works in a post-September 11th world where terrorists are now the real and imagined threat to law officers.
The dead body Warshawski discovers is a black journalist, Marc Whitby, who is researching the life of a famous black dancer-artist, Kylie Ballantine. Ballantine's career was ruined when she was exposed as a member of a Communist-leaning group. Warshawski unearths dirty laundry from an entire elite community whose past history has been long dormant. Her elderly client unwittingly involves herself in the tangled mess of secrets aired. Graham is a plucky sidekick to Warshawski and plays a significant role in the investigation.
The long list of characters includes testy small-town legal officers and a confused teenage girl who takes on a truant foreign companion accused of being a terrorist. Warshawski's client, Darraugh Graham, has dark memories of Larchmont Hall and has no desire to return there. Close neighbors include a powerful publishing house family whose patriarch's reputation was smeared in the McCarthy hearings. An elderly legalist dies before his memories are opened to the public.
Warshawski is in a constant state of turmoil and comes across as not only feisty but neurotic. She untangles a complicated web of information but appears in a constant mid-life crisis of her own. One would hope that the previous series's novels had pictured her as a more likable heroine. The references to her out-of-the-country boyfriend did little to endear him as a relevant character.
Overall, BLACKLIST is a lengthy but good read and gives us insight into a time in recent history that most involved would gladly forget. We are reminded that government can be invasive if allowed. Our most sacred freedoms are not to be taken lightly.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 21, 2011