Keeping with my crime/mystery reading adventure, I chose Sara Paretsky’s Fallout as my May book review. I see a murder mystery theme developing in 2022. NaNoWriMo might get interesting this year. I tend to let my reading lead me in the direction of the story I decide to write. One year, I steeped my mind in all the vampire literature I could find. I read everyone from Bram Stoker to Ann Rice. The novel I wrote became a vampire tale I called Fortune’s Revenge. The novel is stored on a flash drive, waiting to be edited. I plan to continue my fairytale exploration with The Red Riding Hood murders for NaNoWriMo this year, but I digress. To get back on topic, I enjoyed Sara Paretsky’s Fallout. I could relate to the environment she created in this story. The characters and the town seemed familiar.
Quick synopsis of Sara Paretsky’s Fallout
August Verdian and Emerald Ferring disappear from Chicago. The gym where Verdian works and apartment are broken into soon after he vanishes. It is believed they are on a road trip to Kansas. He is in the process of making a documentary about Ferring’s life. According to the story, Ferring became a famous African American actress in the 1970s and 80s.
Family and friends hire V.I. Warshawski to track down Verdian and Ferring. The problem with the case centers around it being the first investigation she’s done outside of Chicago. The two people she’s looking for have disappeared off the face of the earth. V.I.’s investigation leads her to Lawrence, Kansas. A woman with substance abuse and mental health problems claims she saw them on her lover’s grave before entering a drug-induced coma.
The bodies start piling up because of events in the 1980s around a now-abandoned nuclear missile silo and Ferring’s involvement in a protest there. It all boils down to small-town secrets that span the city’s racial divide. V.I. becomes a fish out of the water as she tries to unravel the mystery before she or someone else dies.
Story development in Sara Paretsky’s Fallout
While I enjoyed the story, I also found echoes of the first Paretsky book I read not long ago. The V.I. Warshawski novels are a series of stories with a Chicago female private detective as the protagonist. In both, she tries to uncover the death or disappearance of a person from Chicago’s African American artistic community. In the first book, a magazine writer dies under mysterious circumstances, and an aging African American actress disappears. There is also a similarity between the stories in that VI’s love interest in both novels is out of the country.
The chief difference is the setting in Fallout. VI leaves Chicago and makes her way to Lawrence, Kansas trying to locate Verdian and Ferring. Her quest involves an abandoned missile silo and a brush with the military. While there were similarities in the two stories, I found them both interesting. It also gave me the impression the writer might have used a formula to create the books. I plan to read more of her work shortly, so these similarities weren’t drastic enough to put me off the series.
Worldbuilding in Sara Paretsky’s Fallout
I live in rural Indiana. I grew up not far from what used to be Bunker Hill Air Force Base. It was renamed Grissom Air Force Base after astronaut Gus Grissom. In 1964 a “broken arrow” event occurred when a plane carrying five nuclear bombs crashed and caught fire. Radioactive material escaped, and the bombs were buried in the ground at the base until 2000. Bunker Hill never erected missile silos, but the refueling station often had planes carrying these weapons land there. Therefore nuclear threats from our military became normal life for people living near a military base during the Cold War.
I thought Paretsky did an excellent job of worldbuilding in Fallout. Rural Indiana is similar to Kansas. I suspect the writer spent time studying the terrain in rural Indiana or Illinois because she wrote about cornfields. They might grow corn in Kansas, but they specialize in wheat.
I also thought she captured the racial tension in many mid-western communities. People tend to favor the separate but equal theory regarding race relations. Segregation dies hard in places like Lawrence. They might have been antislavery at the time of the Civil War, but a big racial divide still exists.
The writer also did a good job of capturing the tension of communities living in the shadows of the cold war. Military bases and missile silos are a part of our not-so-distant past.
Evaluation of the characters in Sara Paretsky’s Fallout
I found the characters believable and interesting, even though they sometimes seemed to be carbon copies of other characters in Paretsky’s books. The mystery musician’s boyfriend spending time in Europe left me wondering if he was there to avoid the writer creating love scenes. I like the VI as a flawed person who sometimes takes on more than she can handle.
A final thought on Sara Paretsky’s Fallout
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. It created the perfect amount of tension and suspense to keep me interested. It felt like, at times, I was reading the same book I had read before, but it worked past that impression and emerged into an original story. I have two other books written by Paretsky. I’ll be looking to see if they emerge from a pattern form of writing. I’ll lose interest if I feel like I’ve read these books before without a unique story emerging. It must be a challenge for a writer that tackles doing a series to make the story feel familiar and, at the same time, emerge with a unique flavor.
Who is Molly Shea?
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures, click here.
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