Sara Paretsky writes trivial mysteries that contain big ideas. The mystery, in other words, is the less important element. The social and political ideas, often in a backstory, are what count the most.
In "Critical Mass," Ms. Paretsky's latest V.I. Warshawski novel, the backstory concerns nuclear research, beginning in pre-World War II Europe and spilling uncomfortably into the United States from the 1940s to the present.
The mystery in "Critical Mass" unfolds with the murder of a nonentity drug addict/dealer whom Warshawski finds in a cornfield outside a grim crack house. The reason Warshawski is visiting the crack house at all is a phone call from a young female drug addict who has contacted the detective's close friend, physician Lotty Herschel, who runs a free clinic in downtown Chicago.
The young woman caller claims to be in great danger and quickly disappears. So does the woman's 20-something son, Martin Binder, a talented would-be physicist who works for a nuclear research company and lives with his cranky, unpleasant grandmother.
The grandmother, Kaethe (now "Kitty") Binder, was a classmate of Lotty in Vienna. Kaethe suffered outrageous horrors during the Nazi purge of Jews and having survived is newly widowed and living a comfortable middle-class life just outside Chicago.
The scars of her youth have made her bitter, suspicious and anti-social. She hates her mother, who had been a famous nuclear scientist in Europe but had shown more interest in her work than in Kaethe, her own daughter. Kaethe, has taken a revulsion to science because of this and has refused to let her grandson attend college despite his talents and passionate interest in physics.
Instead, Martin has taken a job with Metargon, a nuclear research company run by billionaire tycoon Cordell Breen. Everything that goes on in Metargon is top secret -- ostensibly for national security reasons but actually to protect company and family secrets. Martin is one of Metargon's most talented physicists despite his lack of formal education, but he has been ostracized by his peers for not having gone to a prestigious college.
At a party given by Breen for his staff, Martin discovers something that "doesn't add up." He, too, goes into hiding. The nuclear research is an important part of the political element. So are the numerous flashbacks to Nazi horrors of the Third Reich, which affected the ancestors of several characters in this story -- including Lotty, who cannot remain professionally objective and emotionally uninvolved this time.
And then there's Warshawski herself, the quintessential modern-day female detective, modeled perhaps on the hard-boiled male guys in novels by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Among her other qualities, V.I. is smart, strong, brave, sassy and sexually liberated. She can also be rash and foolhardy in getting herself into dangerous situations.
In this book, V.I. gets beaten up, shot at, zapped with a stun gun and even hit with a poisoned dart. She is also not averse to breaking the law in the cause of justice. Her ends justify her means. We know, of course, that if she were to be killed, there would be no more story.
Ms. Paretsky will always manage to save her heroine's skin -- not just from the perps, but from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The knowledge that she will live to inhabit another Paretsky novel takes away much of the tension of the violent scenes, but it doesn't matter.
And quite unlike female sleuths in earlier eras, V.I. is allowed by the author to drink, party and have a sex life, just as much as any hard-boiled male gumshoe.
She is currently monogamously partnered with a sexy string bass player, Jake Thibault, who happens to be playing a gig in San Francisco.
When she gets into trouble and needs solace, V.I. can call him on her cell phone and be soothed by hearing him play Bach. They also manage to get together for some hot sex when he returns.
There are Ms. Paretsky's usual colorful characters, not just the regulars who reappear from novel to novel in the superb series, but the array of figures whom V.I. tracks down, most of them as unlikable as they are uncooperative. And there are the unwanted thugs who track her down with the intent of inflicting harm.
The significant ideas in this novel pertain to early atomic scientists on both the Allied and Axis sides who perpetrated all sorts of evil in the name of serving their countries and who stole ideas and information from friends and enemies alike with equal lack of scruples. The author based the atomic research element on real people and events, which she explains in a fascinating historical note at the end, although she is careful to say that the details of plot and character are entirely fictitious.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.