Paretsky's 'Body Work' will resonate

Self-described “old-fashioned feminist” and private investigator V.I. Warshawski is back — intelligent, tough, sarcastic and trouble-prone as ever — in Sara Paretsky’s 14th detective novel, “Body Work.”

It’s a smart, fast-paced thrill ride, set, as always, in Chicago, and filled with the piled-up local cultural, sports and geographical references that give Paretsky’s books the gritty feel of authenticity.

The story has that feel, too, with characters who have been wounded, in one way or another, by the war in Iraq and by highly contemporary issues of sexuality and privacy.

The story opens with in-your-face drama: “Nadia Guaman died in my arms. Seconds after I left Club Gouge, I heard gunshots, screams, squealing tires, from the alley behind the building. I ran across the parking lot, slipping on gravel and ruts, and found Nadia crumpled on the dirty ice. Blood was flowing from her chest in a thick tide.”

Warshawski’s been looking in on her puppylike young cousin Petra, who works part time as a waitress at edgy Club Gouge. The big draw is the Body Artist, a performance artist who, paradoxically, achieves a kind of anonymity by using her nude body as a canvas. She invites others to paint on it, setting the complex plot into motion.

When Nadia, an artist who regularly paints a distinctive design on the Body Artist, is murdered, the killer’s identity seems clear: Chad Vishneski, an angry, obsessive young Iraq war vet who apparently attempted suicide afterward. Of course, it’s not Chad, and the trail to the real killer leads Warshawski into danger through landscapes real and virtual.

Paretsky brings back V.I.’s familiar friends and neighbors — the ageless Lotty and Mr. Contreras (to say nothing of Mitch and Peppy, the dogs) — and two characters from her last outing, “Hardball,” the “radiant Valkyrie” Petra and V.I.’s new neighbor and lover, classical double bassist Jake Thibaut.

We meet two of the most memorable characters only through their letters and journals: Nadia’s sister Allie, who died in Iraq, and her Iraqi friend and lover Amani. Their love is forbidden by both their cultures — Mexican-American Roman Catholic and Middle Eastern Islamic — but the two young women find a place where they can be themselves:

“I took a picture through the broken window to send to Nadia. A date palm, which somehow survived bombs and lack of water. Its crown is level with the roof of the building, and in the summer, Amani tells me, boys climb to the roof and jump to the tree to harvest what fruit the tree still produces. I asked Nadia to make a painting of it, and when she did, I was able to present it to my corazon.”

Along with physical confrontations, themes of social justice are never far away in Paretsky’s work. Most of the characters are shaded and three-dimensional, and their motivations are as complex as the real world.

“Body Work” isn’t just a satisfying whodunit; it’s a rich, well-written why-dunit, striking some surprising chords that will resonate long after you finish the final page.