Okay, Paretsky fans, it’s safe to come out again. That bad, bad movie — you know, the one that dared to call itself V.I. Warshawski — is gone from the theaters (where it didn’t last long), gone from the top 10 list at the video stores (likewise). And the real Vic Warshawski — not Kathleen Turner’s campy tough girl in high heels but a no-nonsense Chicago private eye in worn-out running shoes — is back. Still dark-haired and distinctly unglamorous. Still fishing through her laundry for a presentable blouse. Still whistling Mozart while cleaning her Smith & Wesson.

And still doing more work for friends in need than for paying clients. In Guardian Angel, Warshawski’s righteous fury ignites over the fate of Hattie Frizell, an elderly recluse despised by yuppies in the area because of her ramshackle house, overgrown yard, and five noisy mutts. When Hattie lands in the hospital after a nasty fall, a slick young lawyer on the block gets himself appointed as her legal guardian and has her beloved dogs destroyed. So Warshawski vows to punish the greedy twit, especially once she realizes that there may be more to the guardian gambit than mere yuppie selfishness.

At the same time, at the insistence of crotchety downstairs neighbor Mr. Contreras, Warshawski also investigates the disappearance of boozy Mitch Kruger, Mr. C.’s buddy from the days when they worked together at the Diamond Head engine factory. Kruger, it seems, has stumbled onto a dark secret about Diamond Head. Which may explain why he turns up drowned in ”the San” — the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal — even if the cops are convinced his death was just a drunken accident.

Will Warshawski eventually find a connection between these two seemingly separate plots? Of course she will, though the chain of revelations — involving debt financing, junk bonds, pension funds, and shady banking — is more strained, and much less cleverly twisted, than the similar tangle in Burn Marks (1990). But even if the mystery here comes from Paretsky’s second drawer, the blend of bruising action and personal turmoil remains compelling. In her hunt for incriminating papers, Warshawski has a near-fatal encounter with a factory crane, leaps into the foul San to escape being run down by a truck, and breaks into an impressive array of buildings (with a little help from feisty Mr. Contreras). She’s kept on edge by repeated run-ins with her snooty ex-husband, Dick, a big-time attorney with a lot to hide. And while the dangers of the investigation jeopardize Warshawski’s closest friendship (with Dr. Lotty Herschel, who’s assaulted by thugs mistaking her for Warshawski), they also bring her a lot closer to black cop Conrad Rawlings.

Not Paretsky’s best, but classy and gritty and passionate: plenty good enough to dispel all memory of what Hollywood tried to do to one of mystery fiction’s true originals. B+

Guardian Angel
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