By Tom De Haven
Updated May 27, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

By the last chapter of Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision, her Chicago-based private detective V.I. Warshaw-ski has turned 40, been dumped by her cop boyfriend, quit the profession, and booked a flight to Milan. Big changes seem promised for the next-the ninth-novel in the series. That might be a good idea, because the eighth is so creatively pooped out that it just barely skirts being self-parody.

Vic Warshawski-that self-styled ”femikaze” in red Magli pumps-discovers a homeless mother and three children starving in the basement of her office building. But when her efforts to find them decent shelter are thwarted at every turn, she begins snooping into the byzantine affairs of a private charity with close ties to several powerful bankers and a ruthless United States senator. Although the tangled plot (laundered money, illegal aliens, incest, tax fraud, computer piracy, and the murder of a volunteer social worker) seems promising enough, it never delivers. It just becomes unwieldy, then implausible, before totally collapsing. None of the characters have spark or idiosyncrasy, and the ”detective work” feels borrowed from every mediocre private-eye show that you’ve ever half-watched on TV.

Time and again, Vic drags out her trusty picklocks and breaks into yet another building/office/bedroom, discovering, without a heckuva lot of searching, some vitally important clue (an incriminating letter, a bloody baseball bat, $5 million in cash). Then somebody arrives, and she has to run like hell.

Worse, Paretsky indulges in that preposterous, or maybe the better word is desperate, kind of storytelling wherein the heroine, cleverly concealed (under a desk, behind a door), eavesdrops on the bad guys just as they blurt out what crimes they’ve committed, and why, and what they intend to do next.

Even Warshawski herself seems in particularly bad form, whipping out her Smith & Wesson as casually as a wallet, spouting the silliest bravado (”Don’t get physical with me-I learned to fight on the South Chicago streets. Nobody there knew the Marquess of Queensberry”) and narrating episodes with all the panache of a college sophomore who has just swallowed the dictionary (”I was still fulminating over her audacity when she poked her head around the door”).

Although there are stretches when Paretsky’s literary talents and Warshawski’s appeal fully reassert themselves, they can’t begin to compensate for all of Tunnel Vision‘s cartoonish shortcomings. Ah, well. Every good series has an occasional clinker, and at least Paretsky realizes that it’s time to fiddle around some with the formula. Why else send her beloved creation off to Italy? Ciao, Vic. C-