Indemnity Only, published by Sara Paretsky in 1982, is the first V.I. Warshawski novel. This book was Paretsky’s premiere debut as a novelist, and cemented her place in the hard-boiled mystery genre. This first of twenty V.I. Warshawski novels introduces the fiercely independent Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, known by “Vic” to her friends, a witty private investigator living in Chicago. Not the one to involve herself in petty divorce cases, Vic acts among more corporate circles. In Indemnity Only, Vic faces off against a large, corporate bank, a large union known as the “Knifegrinders,” and a private insurance company.
When the book opens, Vic receives a visit from an unknown client, who reveals himself to be the executive vice-president of Chicago’s biggest bank: Ft. Dearborn Bank and Trust. Thinking she has caught a break, she takes on the case, which is to find out the location of a girl named Anita Hill. Not a day into the case, Vic discovers a dead body and realizes that her client is not who he says he is. Confused and eager to figure out what is really going on, Vic goes on the chase to find Anita Hill and discover the true identity of her client. The secrets she uncovers are far larger and way more deadly than she could have imagined. Throughout her case, she gets involved with several of Chicago’s wealthiest families, gets threatened by notorious thugs, and unravels a thread of fraudulent activities spanning back years. In order to save a girl’s life and entrap a group of mobsters, Vic must use all of her wit and cunning, and even then, she may not have enough of what it takes.
V.I. Warshawski is not your average private investigator. The daughter of a cop and an Italian immigrant, Vic was trained in operatic singing. She graduated from the University of Chicago, obtained a law degree, and became a public defender. When realizing that wasn’t the right career for her, she quit to become a private investigator. She has a love of Johnny Walker Black Label whisky and watching the Cubs win. She’s witty, sarcastic, fiercely independent, and has a passion for justice and helping people. Not the one to bow down and show weakness, her snarky one-liners and clever insults will charm you and make you fall in love with her.
Lotty Herschel, a Jewish doctor who escaped from Austria, runs a clinic in downtown Chicago and is one of Vic’s longest friends. She’s brutally honest, furiously protective, and she’s always willing to help Vic. She is an extremely lovable character, and a good representation of a female character who can be maternal, but still capable of anything.
Ralph Devereux, the charming Irishman working for Ajax Insurance Company, becomes the reigning love interest in Indemnity Only. Due to his proximity to the case, he is able to help V.I., but not without inadvertently annoying her with complaints of the dangers of her job. While he isn’t confident that she’s competent enough to do her job correctly, he truly likes Vic, and he’s a good addition that juxtaposes Vic’s strong femininity with misogynistic ideals.
Hard-Boiled Detectives Don’t Have To Be Sexist Assholes
By creating a believable investigator with the grit and the smarts to tackle problems on the mean streets, Paretsky challenged a genre in which women typically were either vamps or victims.2
This book deals strongly with feminism. The main character is a female private investigator. She is a woman working in a male-dominated career, fighting against the odds and constantly combating negative stereotypes. Throughout the novel, numerous characters tell her that her line of work is dangerous, and that her parents wouldn’t approve. She is constantly looked down upon because of her femininity and even her client doesn’t initially trust her because he doesn’t believe a woman can get the job done. Vic regularly has to reassert her ability and competence as a private detective. One of her biggest pet peeves is when someone tries to encroach on her independence and tell her she can’t do her job.
For people who hated Chandler’s The Big Sleep and the misogynistic Philip Marlowe, this book is for you!
Paretsky’s take on the hard-boiled is not only refreshing, but it’s well-written and extremely entertaining. I read this book in one sitting, because I didn’t want to put it down. The plot is realistic and and suspenseful, the characters are three-dimensional and engaging, the dialogue was witty and humorous. Paretsky’s descriptions of Chicago’s geography is so detailed, that I feel confident someone could walk themselves through the city with only the book as a guide. Her attention to those tiny details made her book more realistic, and more believable. Indemnity Only was not only an easy read, but a good one. Written in the first-person gave the book the life it needed. Seeing everything from Vic’s eyes was humorous and captivating. She was everything I wanted from a hard-boiled detective. Like Parker’s Spenser, Vic was funny and she wasn’t a misogynistic pig, as so many other hard-boiled detectives are. She cares about women and respects them. She can take care of herself, and she is the embodiment of empowerment. She will give women readers major satisfaction in the way she deals with men and the sexism she encountered way too often.
It isn’t a surprise that Vic is so unlike other hard-boiled detectives. Paretsky wrote the character V.I. Warshawski as a way to combat previous hard-boiled detective. Paretsky’s “literary career was born out of the conviction that it ought to be possible to ‘create a woman who was a person, not an angel or a monster.’ Although she grew up reading mystery novels, Paretsky didn’t come across Raymond Chandler until her early 20s; The Big Sleep marked her first encounter with that staple of noir fiction, the femme fatale; in this case Carmen Sternwood, a woman who not only commits murder, but drives the men around her to do the same through the corruptive force of her sexuality. The year was 1971, and Paretsky was heavily involved in second-wave feminism; so enraged was she by Chandler’s depiction of women that she vowed to ‘write a crime novel … that would turn the tables on the dominant views of women in fiction and in society.'”1
And so she did. Paretsky published Indemnity Only and sold 3,500 copies.1 It jumpstarted her career. She went on to write nineteen more V.I. Warshawski novels and win numerous awards, including “Ms. Magazine’s 1987 Woman of the Year award. More accolades followed: the British Crime Writers awarded her the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement; Blacklist won the Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers for best novel of 2004, and she has received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from several different universities.”2
One of the greatest things that came from these novels, however, is probably the Sisters in Crime Organization.
The Sisters in Crime Organization is one of Paretsky’s proudest achievements. Paretsky created Sisters in Crime to help women writing in the mystery genre. In the FAQ portion on her site, Paretsky states,
I helped start Sisters in Crime in 1986 in response to a range of problems facing women mystery writers. Some were issues of attitude, but others had a direct negative effect on our careers. Many of us encountered both fans and male writers at crime conferences who assumed we did this as a hobby, not as a serious vocation.
These attitudes so permeated the publishing and reading worlds that books by women received short shrift from reviewers, libraries, and book sellers. Books with women protagonists were often marginalized if they were published at all. As a result, women’s books stayed in print for shorter periods than books by men, which meant women had a harder time getting subsequent books published.2
To find out more about Sisters in Crime, you can go to their website.
Because of her efforts, many women write in the mystery genre today, and are majorly successful. Such authors include Janet Evanovich, Gillian Flynn, and Megan Abbott.
Paretsky’s character did influence an on-screen adaptation. V.I. Warshawski came out in 1991 and starred Kathleen Turner as the witty private investigator. While it’s based off of the second book in the series, Deadlock, there are creative liberties taken and the plot isn’t completely true to the novel. However, it was popular and actress Angela Goethals was nominated for a Young Actors Award because of it.
Like Paretsky, I hated Philip Marlowe. He, along with the Continental Op, ruined the hard-boiled genre for me. The misogyny and complete objectification of women was abhorrent to me, and after The Big Sleep, I didn’t think I would ever like a novel written in the hard-boiled genre. However, after reading Indemnity Only, I was proven wrong. V.I.’s fierce femininity and respect for women was excitedly refreshing. Not only did I like reading a hard-boiled novel, but I want to continue reading the rest of the series. The female characters in the novel were not only three-dimensional, but they had agency. I’ve come to realize that it isn’t the hard-boiled genre that bothers me – it’s the men that write them. Sara Paretsky created a wonderfully compelling novel that I would highly recommend to anyone, fans of detective fiction or not. Her ability to completely change my opinion on an entire genre is testament to the significance of her work.
The V.I. Warshawski novels are still being written. Paretsky has mentioned that the world is still in need of Vic and she isn’t going away yet. I, for one, can’t wait to read more of her.
1Crown, Sarah. “Sara Paretsky interview: ‘I start each VI Warshawski book convinced I can’t do it’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Aug. 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/07/sara-paretsky-interview-i-start-each-vi-warshawski-book-convinced-i-cant-do-it.
2“Welcome to the web site for writer Sara Paretsky.” Sara Paretsky, saraparetsky.com/.
Clark, Amy Sara. “The Truth About Lotty — Jewish Journal.” Jewish Journal, jewishjournal.com/culture/arts/7161/.
“CONNECT.” Sisters in Crime, www.sistersincrime.org/.
“Indemnity Only.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Nov. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indemnity_Only.
Paretsky, Sara. “V.I. Warshawski Series (18 books).” V.I. Warshawski Series by Sara Paretsky, www.goodreads.com/series/55214-v-i-warshawski.
Paretsky, Sara. “Indemnity Only (V.I. Warshawski, #1).” Indemnity Only (V.I. Warshawski, #1) by Sara Paretsky, www.goodreads.com/book/show/36262305-indemnity-only.
“Sara Paretsky.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Nov. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sara_Paretsky.
“Sisters in Crime.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 July 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisters_in_Crime.
“V.I. Warshawski (1991).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0103184/?ref_=nv_sr_4.
YouTube, 8 Jan. 2010, youtu.be/yBf7X7lcMjk.