Burn Marks

Who is America’s most convincing and engaging professional female private-eye? A couple of seasons back, I might have cast my vote for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, a scrappy yet agreeably low-key operative in southern California. But V. I. Warshawski, the star of Sara Paretsky’s series about white-collar crime and wall-to-wall corruption in Chicago, now clearly leads the growing field. Initially a somewhat tinny composite of feminist and antiestablishment virtues, V. I. — call her Vic (for Victoria), but never Vicky — has grown more flesh-and-bloodily complex with each of her no-nonsense investigations into insurance scams and municipal cover-ups. And now, in her sixth outing, Burn Marks, V. I. proves to be irascibly irresistible as family ties (of the most malodorous sort) pull her deeper and deeper into an ugly arson-and-murder case.

The mayhem begins when alcoholic Auntie Elena, a 60-ish ex-hooker, shows up at V. I.’s apartment at 3 a.m., having been burned out of the SRO hotel where she was ”still turning the occasional trick on the day the pension checks arrived.” Arson, of course — but why? Also: How does the SRO fire connect to the death of a pregnant junkie or to shady construction deals for minority contractors?

Well, the basic nature of the conspiracy at work here will come as no surprise. But one or two of the conspirators are worth unmasking. And narrator V. I., whether saving Auntie Elena (and self) from a second fire, refusing to be patronized by macho cops, or fending off the neighbors (one chummy oldster, one hostile yuppie), is flinty and rueful and very good company. A-

Burn Marks
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