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by Sara Paretsky
G.P. Putnam's Sons, November 2013
480 pages
ISBN: 0399160566

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I suppose that it's not surprising that I've been reading about a good number of ageing detectives lately, since some of my favourite series have been underway for a very long time. Inspector Wexford, for example, first saw the light of day in 1964 and Rebus has been around since 1987. Though very different in character, both have reached a (fictional) stage of life in which they are drawn toward reflection and contemplation, sometimes even regret. VI Warshawski made her first appearance five years before Rebus, but unlike him, she's in no mood for reflection or even caution. And, as CRITICAL MASS reveals, it's a good thing too.

The threads of the mysteries she is trying to unravel here are many and complicated. VI first becomes involved in her usual way - led by her heart when her reason tells her to stand clear. Her dear friend Dr Lotty Herschel escaped Nazi Vienna via a Kindertransport in 1939 along with her childhood friend, Käthe Saginor. In time, both wound up in the United States, where Lotty became a respected physician. Käthe became Kitty, married, had a child, Judy, and grew into an embittered old lady, still nursing resentment against her mother, Martina Saginor, a physicist in Vienna who, as a Jew, lost her position and presumably in the end her life after the Nazis came to power in Austria. In time, Judy grew up into a drug addict, had a child, Martin, whom Kitty largely raised, and has now disappeared. Lotty feels a certain responsibility for Judy and asks Vic to see if she can find out what has happened to Kitty.

VI tracks Judy down to a meth cookhouse in downstate Illinois, where she finds a corpse in a cornfield, but no Judy. She's about to give up on the search when Judy's irascible and bitter mother hires her to look for Judy's son who has, apparently independently, also disappeared. Martin has a decided talent for mathematics and physics, though his grandmother has refused to let him go to university. He is talented enough to get a job working on a project at Metargon, a leading computer tech company, where he is befriended by Alison, the daughter of its CEO. But now, inexplicably, he is gone, and has managed a virtually impossible feat at a time when privacy has been pretty well abolished - he has "gone dark" - obliterated all electronic traces of his whereabouts and activities. Even Homeland Security and the FBI can't seem to find him.

And they are looking for him. Why, we will not find out for many pages, pages filled with Vic's own investigations, with the physical dangers she finds herself in as a result of them, and with occasional flashbacks that provide a fragmented and moving biography of Martina Saginor, born in Vienna around 1907, who grew up to earn a doctorate in physics and become an associate at the Institut für Radiumforschung until the Nazis put an end to her career. Paretsky casts these sections in the present tense, which has the effect of making them seem more immediate than parts of the main narrative, set in the present but told in the past tense.

Martina's story was inspired by a somewhat shadowy, but very real, woman scientist, Marietta Blau, who was a member of the Institut, a laboratory notable for its aggressive recruiting of women physicists, all of whom were fired when the Nazis rose to power. Paretsky notes dryly that the lab still exists but has never since achieved the gender equality of its early days. Other parts of Martina's story relate to the immediate postwar period, when the United States was enthusiastically recruiting German ex-Nazi physicists for its atomic program and turning a blind eye to what they'd been up to for the past decade.

Who Martina was and what became of her is at the centre of the story, far more significant than the more familiar threads of corporate greed, vaunting ambition, and family secrets that underlie the plot. Paretsky takes a certain risk with the character, presenting her as a woman so consumed with a passion for physics that she cannot provide her daughter with the love she needs. Consequently, Kitty does not know how to be a mother to her own daughter, and the familial pattern is repeated. But how harshly can we judge Martina? At the end, she explains herself: "These bodies, yes, we live inside these bodies and must tend to them, but I wanted to be inside the numbers, inside the function where it approaches the limit. I long for the stars...but I don't want to describe them: I want to be inside the light." All this was thought and felt against the background of a Europe darkening under Nazism. Martina is a tragic figure.

CRITICAL MASS is perhaps the best novel of the series in some time. It is expansive and, admittedly, rather long, but it is suspenseful and engaging throughout its length. Tightly plotted, it is often also very beautifully written and manages to convey the wonder of advanced physics to even the mathematically challenged. And VI Warshawski is at her best as well - compassionate, committed, quick to enlist herself on the side of the righteously indignant - there really is no one else quite like her.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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