The P. I. risks life and limb in pro bono effort for neighbors

V. I.

March 01, 1992|By Susanne Trowbridge

Sara Paretsky's series of novels starring Chicago private eye V. I. (Vic) Warshawski helped set the standard for the modern hard-boiled mystery. Her seventh effort, "Guardian Angel" (Delacorte, 370 pages, $20), finds Vic up to her old tricks -- fighting white-collar crime, and risking life and limb in the process.

At a charity gala, V. I. runs into her ex-husband, Richard Yarborough. He's now a successful corporate lawyer, married to the beautiful daughter of a business tycoon. As it happens, Todd Pichea, a lawyer in Richard's firm, is a neighbor of V. I.'s; thanks to a yuppie invasion, her old blue-collar environs are undergoing gentrification, and she doesn't appreciate the way the newcomers are trying to remake the neighborhood.

Todd Pichea and his wife are particularly peeved at a slightly batty old lady named Mrs. Frizell, whose five dogs he considers a noisy nuisance. When Mrs. Frizell is seriously injured in an accident, the Picheas manage to get themselves appointed her legal guardians, and their first action is to have the animals put to sleep.

Meanwhile, V. I.'s downstairs neighbor, Mr. Contreras, is concerned about the disappearance of one of his old buddies, and asks her to track him down. The missing man's body turns up in a canal, and V. I.'s investigation uncovers a scandal involving Diamond Head, the engine-making company where he and Mr. Contreras used to work.

Throughout the novel, people keep asking the perennially broke private eye why she is doing pro-bono battle against the Picheas and Diamond Head (naturally, the cases turn out to be linked). The question is never given a satisfactory answer. Vic is shot at, almost run over by a truck, hassled by thugs. She has always been a fighter for justice, but this time one would almost guess that she has a death wish.

The latest novel by Baltimore author John C. Boland is a breezy tale of financial intrigue called "Brokered Death" (Pocket Books, 214 pages, $4.50). After hearing European money manager Gustav Raab speak at a Wall Street club, stockbroker Donald McCarry sets out to win some of his business. "Half a billion pedigreed bucks could produce five million a year in broker commissions if the broker did his job," he reasons.

However, after McCarry starts working for Raab, dead bodies start piling up in the broker's vicinity -- the inimitable handiwork of Raab's brutish "secretary," Bruno Mullins. McCarry gradually realizes that Raab is no ordinary money manager; he and the members of his sinister, super-wealthy international financial network are willing to kill to protect their investments.

Things take a turn for the worse on a business trip to Paris. Raab, having lured the broker's patrician girlfriend, Stacy Kimball, and her sister Betsy along, kidnaps the women and holds them hostage on a beat-up barge on the Seine. McCarry has to figure out a way to save their lives -- and his own. "Brokered Death" is full of well-drawn characters, from the ruthless Raab to McCarry's gleefully greedy co-workers, even if McCarry is a little too smart-alecky for his own good.

Readers in the mood for a good old-fashioned English farce need look no further than Simon Shaw's "Killer Cinderella" (Doubleday Perfect Crime, 288 pages, $16.50). Mark Harvey hated his shrewish wife, Maddie, but he didn't mean to kill her. Still, accident or no, Mark's got a corpse on his hands -- and since he's not eager to go to prison, he must figure out a way to discreetly dispose of the body.

In the meantime, as his dead wife lies hidden in the cellar freezer, Mark tries to keep her "alive" a little longer by pretending to be her. By wearing her blond wig, makeup and clothing, he manages to fool Maddie's half-witted, nearsighted lover. Then Mark's new next-door neighbor gets a glimpse of Mark-as-Maddie and falls head over heels in love.

"Killer Cinderella" is undeniably sexist -- the female characters are all ridiculously repugnant and, as the book makes plain, Mark turns out to be a better woman than Maddie ever was. Nevertheless, it's hard not to like a novel as outrageously madcap and inventive as this one.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

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