There are all sorts of reasons why a particular book might not make it into “Whodunit?”, my regular BookPage print column on mystery and suspense novels: first off, only four make the cut each month, so even really good books can get passed over; other times, I might skip a book if I have reviewed another book by the same author in the past year or so; or, as was the case last month, the books reviewed all featured an international theme, so Sara Paretsky’s latest V.I. Warshawski novel, Body Work, set in Chicago, wasn’t the best fit.
That said, Paretsky is a long-time favorite of mine, so Body Work found a place well toward the top of my bedside table reading stack, a pile of books to be attacked systematically once my required reading has been done and the column put to bed.
Regular Paretsky readers will be familiar with Warshawski’s young cousin Petra, the irrepressibly lovable thorn in V.I.’s side, back for an encore appearance, this time as a server in an avant-garde performance art club. The performance art in question is offered up by The Body Artist, a beautiful young woman who appears onstage fully nude and allows her body to serve as a canvas for audience members who would like to try their painting skills. Needless to say, this attracts a diverse group of patrons, from serious scholars to whooping frat boys, and, as has been known to happen in V.I. Warshawski novels, things take a turn for the violent. Two audience members, seemingly unconnected to one another, react with uncommon yet disparate intensity to The Body Artist: Nadia Guaman obsessively paints the same picture night after night upon the performer’s torso; Chad Vishneski, a tormented Iraq War vet, watches from the audience, seething, until he can bear it no longer, and then he snaps—big time. Minutes later, Nadia Guaman lies dead in the alley, and Chad is arrested for her murder.
Warshawski is hired by Chad’s father, who doesn’t believe his son capable of taking a life. The seasoned PI has her work cut out for her, however, as her investigation into the life and times of Nadia Guaman runs into a brick wall–a wall fortified by a defense contractor with deep pockets and notably few scruples, and by the Guaman family, who prove remarkably resistant to Warshawski’s sensitive but persistent probing. Add in cameos from a brassy club owner, a Ukrainian mob boss who brings new depth to the word “ruthless”, and the usual cast of Chi-town lowlifes, and Body Work takes on a life of its own: a nuanced and layered novel of greed, lust, love, and anger (which are, of course, the four cornerstones on which murders and murder mysteries are built).