The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book review:
Blacklist by Sara Paretsky

Jan 22, 2007

In this detective novel, private detective Victoria Warshawski investigates a murder in Chicago’s ultra-rich community of mansions, class privilege – and skeletons in many closets.

Soon after 9/11, detective Warshawski is hired by a wealthy man to find out why lights keep appearing in his mother’s unused mansion. She stumbles upon a body in the mansion’s pool and begins to unravel a most complicated case – made far more complicated by the ability of those with wealth and power to evade the laws and hide even their worst scandals beneath their false fronts of respectability.

The body in the pool turns out to be that of a respected black author who, as Warshawski soon discovers, was researching a book on a dancer’s life in the 1950s, including her activism for social justice, her relationship with the Communist Party, and her job loss due to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In those days of political witch-hunting, only a word, perhaps merely a hint, from HUAC to an employer, was enough to have a person fired from their job without cause.

It so happened that an occasional wealthy person would in those days support organizations for peace, or labor organizing, or social justice, or civil rights and equality, in which Communists were also active. When the HUAC persecutions started to hit these wealthy ones, they had the means to escape the consequences – as long as certain scandals could be kept covered up. The body in the pond leads Warshawski back through these scandals to the tense, complicated and vicious history of the McCarthy Period of the 1950s.

But what of the mysterious lights in the mansion? When Warshawski works on this problem, she uncovers a modern case of blacklisting, prejudice and denial of personal rights and civil liberties. It’s after 9/11, and an innocent young Muslim is hiding out after being branded as a potential terrorist. An idealistic wealthy teenager is helping him hide out in the old mansion. And when Warshawski helps hide him, she finds that the FBI and police can bug her phone, invade her office without a warrant, and force a library to divulge everything she requested – thanks to the Patriot Act.

Blacklist not only journeys through these parallel social histories fifty years apart. It keeps the exciting who-done-it action flowing, with a large cast of believable characters. Also very worthwhile is the way the author not only approaches those haughty closed mansion doors, but ushers us inside. The expensive refined elegance of the wealthy properties is contrasted with wealthy lives of pettiness, scheming, snobbery and – yes – getting away with murder.