I had never heard of Sara Paretsky before. I knew of V.I. Warshawski from the title of a movie I never bothered to watch.
The 1980’s, from whence Indemnity Only comes, seems to me to be pretty far removed from the heyday of hardboiled detectives. Yet it is also solidly in the tradition – the title harks back to Cain, and the protagonist is a modern-day Marlowe or Spade. The opening line, “The night air was thick and damp,” brings to mind Throw Momma from the Train, which ties to Highsmith through Hitchcock.
We see rich people more concerned with their image than their family members. We have a mob-connected labor organization, just like in Red Harvest. And a lone private eye working out of an office in a shabby building.
I was thinking about the historical context of the novel. By the early 80s, the US had had several years of runaway inflation. Unemployment was growing to the highest rate since the Depression. Rising interest rates put the economy in a recession. Also in the early 80s, the air traffic controllers went on strike. President Reagan fired them all, which has been called the moment that killed middle-class America. Some of the labor vs. bosses tension is there with the Thayers and McGraws, but it seems not so much central to the story as just a source of conflict within the plot. The impression I get from the novel is that labor unions are corrupt. But there’s a point in the book where VI is talking to some snotty kid at the college:
He put the book spine up on the desk top. Capitalism and Freedom, by Marcuse. I might have guessed.
I wondered: Why might she have guessed? I looked up Capitalism and Freedom only to find that it’s by Milton Friedman who basically built the Chicago school of economics. So I looked up Marcuse and found out that he’s basically the Anti-Friedman. So now not only do I not know why she might have guessed, I also don’t know what Paretsky is trying to say. Perhaps it’s some kind of inside joke.