Fiction: "Hardball," by Sara Paretsky

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A 40-year-old baseball autographed by onetime Chicago White Sox second-baseman Nellie Fox is the source and double-entendre of the title of Sara Paretsky's latest novel featuring private detective V.I. Warshawski.

It turns up among the possessions of her dead father -- inexplicably, since Tony Warshawski was a Cubs fan. Even more curious are several holes on the ball's surface. It's also the source of the story's most violent events.

By Sara Paretsky
Putnam ($26.95)

The ball is discovered by V.I.'s young cousin Petra, relocated to Chicago to work on a political campaign of the son of her father's closest friend. Petra has taken an interest in her family's history, and insists that V.I. show her family artifacts. V.I.'s house is then ransacked and Petra disappears. The security camera shows her between two masked men breaking in.

V.I. is searching for a young black man who disappeared during 1966 riots that occurred when Martin Luther King made a speech in Lincoln Park. Those riots, it should be noted, involved whites assailing blacks who were marching in peaceful protests, and police were, for the most part, unwilling to protect black victims. There was police brutality, but V.I. is convinced that her father did not participate in this. Tony, in fact, lost a chance at promotion when he reported misconduct of his fellow officers.

The story goes back and forth in time, starting in the middle. It can be confusing to figure out just where we are in time as the action moves quickly with cinematic changes of mood and venue.

Still it's a hard book to put down.

The character of Petra is trite, a silly spoiled Gen-Xer, but V.I.'s Italian opera-singer mother warbles her way into our hearts with quotes from "Don Giovanni" that will stir any opera lover as they penetrate to the recesses of the detective's psyche.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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