Critical Mass, Sara Paretsky’s 17th crime novel featuring Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski, explores a present-day missing persons case—and pre-WWII Austria.
What made you want to examine the American immigrant experience—in this case, those who came from the chaos in Europe?
I wanted to write a story about a woman scientist in Vienna between the two world wars. The character is loosely based on a real woman, Marietta Blau, whose work in physics was so groundbreaking that Nobel laureates in physics nominated her for the prize. The more I learned about Blau, the more fascinated I became with the role women scientists played in research at Vienna’s important Institute for Radiation Research. With the Nazi takeover of Austria, women—and Jews—lost their positions.
Methamphetamine use is on the rise in both the rural and urban locations that V.I. visits in the novel. What intrigued you about this epidemic?
I live on the South Side of Chicago, in a relatively affluent and relatively low-crime neighborhood, which is an island in the middle of an area afflicted by great poverty and high crime. The drug economy is a massive problem here—it’s both cause and effect of the crime and the poverty. It’s something that leaves me feeling so helpless that I tend not to write about it. I couldn’t write a kind of novel where V.I. takes on drug dealers and emerges triumphant, because she can do nothing to affect the underlying enormity of the poverty and boredom that fuel the drug economy. Using it here as a side story meant I could write about it without having to try to fix it.
Why did you decide to take V.I. out of her Chicago comfort zone and send her to Vienna?
I had originally hoped to set a big chunk of the action in Vienna. I was imagining research papers hidden in archives, or at the Institute for Radiation Research. However, when I visited Vienna to do research for the book, a scientist at the institute and the archives at the University of Vienna explained to me how that wouldn’t have been possible. And papers of Jewish scientists would have been destroyed or dispersed in ways that would have made tracking them tedious—not the right work for an action novel. It’s possible that I’ll someday write a whole novel from Martina Saginor’s perspective [i.e., that of the character based on Blau]; she’s one of the most vivid characters I’ve ever created and I feel a strong attachment to her. If that happens, I’ll return to Vienna for a slower-paced, more intense novel.