by Sharon Tucker
“. . . For the Beauty of the Earth . . .”
Earth day (April 22) always makes me long to be a flower child again. I want to wear Birkenstocks, put on a patchwork granny dress and to have flowers in my hair—all of which I did daily a number of years ago—except maybe the flowers. I want to spend the day outdoors in a sylvan setting, far away from the city where cars vibrate with rap music, and I want to be in a place where the internet is just a line of code on the breeze. If something similar appeals to you but you can’t quite make good your escape, pick up Sara Paretsky’s Blood Shot, T. Jefferson Parker’s Pacific Beat or Donna Leon’s Death in a Strange Country and travel to south Chicago, the coast of southern California or to Guido Brunetti’s Venice. At least, get outside your milieu. These novels are a trip back a few decades in time to issues that we still cannot seem get past.
In Blood Shot (1988), V.I. Warshawski takes what looks like a simple enough job in this the fifth entry of Paretsky’s series. Old ties do more than bind when Warshawsky is emotionally blackmailed into taking on a paternity investigation for a childhood frenemy, Caroline Dijiak. The case takes Warshawski back to her youth and her old neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, where many of her neighbors worked in the nearby Xerxes Solvent factory—just imagine the health issues that ensued ever after for the factory’s employees. To say that Warshawsky meets with uniform resistance from her old neighbors in the investigation is an understatement.
Everyone from the frenemy’ s mother to local government officials, insurers, the company doctor and especially the Xerxes factory owner would prefer the P.I. to just back off from everything to do with the case. A murder and a similar attempt on Vic’s own life puts backing off out of the question. As a character, Warshawski is so full energy that she steamrolls the plot not only over the villains of the piece, but don’t be surprised if you’re ready for a rest after reading it—the trouble is that you might be too wired. Of particular note is Paretsky’s deft hand at writing inter-personal conflict. Dijiak and Warshawsky have confrontations that are so vivid that I needed a time out myself after reading some of them.
The setting is Newport Beach, California where former investigator Jim Weir has returned home after taking off on his version of “lighting out for the Territory”: diving for sunken treasure in Mexico. The political and environmental concerns of the small town of and those of his family are much the same as they were when he left, but a family tragedy first pulls Weir into the Newport Beach Police Department’s investigations, then he finds himself pitted against both the PD and a land-hungry entrepreneur’s heavy influence in local politics. Add to this the steadily increasing percentage of toxicity in Newport Beach’s bay as well as Weir’s romantic complications and you may question his returning in the first place. The beautiful California of our dreams has the starring role in all of Parker’s novels and you’ll especially enjoy gazing into the middle distance he creates. Parker has a knack for blending west coast Zen with emotional truths that will make you sit back and think a bit. You’ll sense what it must be like to wake up to living in a small town near the Pacific with the changing scents of the ocean as each day progresses, seeing the varieties of mist rolling in from the water, and blending in to the rhythm of days full of sun and nights to celebrate.
So little arable land lies within the environs of Italy’s Venice that toxic waste and its safe disposal has a horrifying immediacy. Death in a Strange County (1993), begins with a body discovered floating in one of the lagoon city’s legendary canals. The simplest solution to the crime would be to call it a fatal mugging, but when the evidence leads Police Commissioner Guido Brunetti in another direction, he runs into opposition within the Venetian Questura. As with so many of Brunetti’s investigations, he has to work his way around his immediate superior, Vice-Questore Patta who is either corrupt or dim or both—I vote for both. Leon leaves these sorts of conclusions to us, always sharing intimate glimpses into Venetian culture and attitudes while enduring and working around a venal and unethical power structure he has come to accept as a matter of course. We learn much about how Venetians see themselves, what they love to eat, the wine the love to drink and how the scourge of tourism affects their lives increasingly every year. I particularly love how Brunetti’s wife and children stabilize his life even when they quibble and squabble with him. This is family life at its best and one of the series’ great virtues.
Be kind and make sure that Earth Day reminds you to live up to your responsibility to all our future children by leaving a smaller carbon footprint on our planet as you live your life each day. Some of us have the chance to make a big difference about pollution and conservation in our choices, but for the individual, I believe that each bottle or can that is recycled is one less scar for which we are all ultimately accountable.
HAPPY EARTH DAY!
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