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FALLOUT
by Sara Paretsky
William Morrow, April 2017
443 pages
$27.99
ISBN: 0062435841


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Paretsky's novels are always a pleasure to read. Even if her plots defy credulity at times and her detective, V.I. Warshawski, can seem predictably to see-saw between getting cudgelled by fist-happy losers and cuddling (female) puppies, Paretsky is a first rate writer, whose attentiveness to the residual impact—or, aptly, "fallout"—that history has on the present offers a welcome antidote to what Gore Vidal famously called the United States of Amnesia. As with TOTAL RECALL, and, to a lesser extent, CRITICAL MASS, which focussed on Warshawski's physician friend, Lotty Hershel, and her experience of the holocaust; with BLACKLIST, which delved into the late reverberations of the House Un-American Activities' blacklisting of journalists and African-American entertainers; and with HARDBALL, which confronted the various cover-ups of Civil Rights era murders; with FALLOUT Paretsky aims at unpacking the now barely-acknowledged history of 1980s anti-nuclear activism. And for this (her 18th) Warshawski novel, she has V.I. conduct her investigations in Lawrence, Kansas, amidst its de-commissioned nuclear bomb silos and potentially contaminated grain fields—far outside her range of familiarity and network of contacts in Chicago, and thus far outside what has practically become Paretsky's signature locale. Warshawski's dislocation from her bailiwick and Kansas's complicity in, and opposition to, the Reaganite nuclear proliferation are rich in potential.

Whether Paretsky fully plumbs that potential or not is an open question, though, for the core concerns spiral outward so profoundly that we tend to lose sight of them. Warshawski's investigation into the disappearance first from Chicago and then from Lawrence of a Kansan African-American actress, Emerald Ferring, of the 1960s and '70s and a young indy film director, August Veriden—the latter who is purportedly touring Lawrence with the former to film a documentary of her early life—leads her back to a 1983 protest at the Kanwaka Missile Silo. What appears to be at the centre of the investigation, however, is more of a front for past and current misdeeds on the part of numerous government, corporate, and patriot organizations. The nuclear threat and its attendant radiation threat give way to the bioweapons threat, naturally precipitated by Soviet defectors, and the xenophobic American "patriots" (or alt-right) threat; and by the end the nasty soup of miscreant players includes: the US Department of Defense, the Air Force, Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI, a corrupt Douglas County Sheriff's office, and a shady corporation with goons claiming to be true patriots defending against the "enemies at our gates."

Needless to say, with this many vested interests, there is no such thing as a false lead for Warshawski. Every corpse, every venue of investigation, indeed, every event is significant—a paranoiac's dream come true. As Warshawski thinks at some point: "I was tired of ... arguing with government agents, tired of trying to imagine why decent lawmen ... suddenly began acting as shills for the army or big corporations. Money had changed hands, or threats had changed ears—it was always the same story, and I was tired of reading it."

Luckily we don't get tired of reading Paretsky. Her staunch feminism, her refusal to accept government and media bromides for gross and costly miscalculations, and her defence of overt lefty political activism are all the more crucial in the face of what she calls in her acknowledgements the "cataclysmic events" that followed her completion of FALLOUT in August 2016.

§ Nicola Nixon is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal.

Reviewed by Nicola Nixon, July 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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