VI. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky's Chicago-based private investigator, is that classic American invention, the hardboiled private eye. The fact that she's also a woman has, to her creator's disbelief, changed the face of crime fiction.

First introduced in Indemnity Only (Dial, 1982), Victoria Iphigenia ("Vic" to her friends), depends on her wits, her fists and her unstoppable mouth to fight crime; she lives alone, drinks Scotch and follows her own rules. Viewing life darkly, she is reluctantly motivated by a passion for justice she cannot deny. Without V.I., many of the current crop of tough women investigators, like Grace Edwards's Mali Anderson, Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon or Lisa Scottoline's Bennie Rosato, might never have seen the light of day.

Despite the P.I.'s physical prowess, Warshawski was created "not to act for me, but to speak for me," explains the author over a late-day Scotch in a sunset-drenched hotel room in Milwaukee. The slim, soft-spoken Paretsky, along with her husband, physicist Courtenay Wright, is on the road, criss-crossing the country with Hard Time (Delacorte), the first V.I. Warshawski novel in five years. The writer's eight previous Warshawski books won praise from many quarters and found places on bestseller lists across the country. Ghost Country (Delacorte, 1998) was Paretsky's first novel not to feature the detective.

Warshawski's voice did not come to Paretsky all at once. The writer grew up on crime novels, moving by her college years from the genteel puzzles she had focused on earlier to the dark, hardboiled works of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Like anyone in those days who valued toughness over tea cozies, the authors she read and the characters she read about were men. But her immersion in the novels of Chandler and other hard-boiled writers coincided with the women's movement of the late '60s and early '70s. Although drawn to Chandler for the quality of his writing and the nature of the stories he told ("There's a deep loneliness in his writing that's almost unbearable," she says), Paretsky was put off by how the writer she has referred to, with irony, as "St. Raymond," viewed sexuality and women.

In the hard-boiled books of the time, images of women were few: the virgin, the wise-cracking secretary and, Paretsky says, "My personal favorite, the woman who has sex and dies." Paretsky dreamed of breaking through the walls of those stereotypes, at first toying with the idea of a female private eye into whose midnight office, lit only by the blinking neon sign outside, would walk a broad-shouldered, slim-hipped mysterious man. Appearing to be the erotic hero, he would be revealed at the end as the villain behind it all. But Philip Marlowe in a skirt is a parody, not a character, and Paretsky wanted more.

"V.I. is about voice, not action," Paretsky says. "I don't know if I'll ever feel that my voice is being attended to. I feel that if I'm not shouting I'm not being heard. But V.I. is heard. She's effective and formidable. She speaks for people on the margins who have no voice."

Hard Time, like all Paretsky's books, grew out of a deeply felt anger at social injustice. In this case, Paretsky's rage was ignited by the privatization of America's prisons and the potential this new system creates for abuse and exploitation. Midway through Hard Time, Warshawski is arrested and sent to a fictional but not unrealistic women's prison in Illinois. According to Paretsky, the chapters where Warshawski is behind bars are the hardest she has ever written. "It was painful to have her be so vulnerable," she says. "I knew that I needed her to be in jail but kept delaying getting her there. Even now I find those chapters are really hard to read."

Paretsky's social consciousness is a family legacy. Her grandparents met on an ILGWU picket line, and the large Kansas family in which she grew up -- she has four brothers -- was politically liberal in every sense but one. "It was a 'boys only' atmosphere," she recalls. "I was a baby-minder. I think there was some hope that I would remain the unmarried spinster, forever taking care." Her brothers were sent to college, she to secretarial school. So she put herself through college, working to fund her own education.

"The women's movement of the '60s changed my life," Paretsky says. "It let me see that the doubts I had about my ability to occupy public space weren't necessarily the result of my own defects, but of socialization." She still has these doubts, she says, but now she takes advantage of the visibility her career affords her to make a difference in the public sphere. She has endowed several scholarships for students interested in science, the arts or sports, and she teaches and mentors high school students in downtown Chicago. She was also a founding member of Sisters in Crime, an organization created to raise the profile of women crime writers in the eyes of readers, reviewers and publishers.

The social commentary at the heart of the hardboiled novel, Paretsky notes, has its roots in the classic western. Novels like Owen Wister's The Virginian explore "the myth of the West, not the real West. This is the hero who reluctantly takes justice into his own hands, who won't let ordinary people's lives be destroyed." Ross MacDonald captured that, she says, "in books like The Far Side of the Dollar; it's not that wealth is inherently evil, but that the things you can do with money are so vastly greater than the power of those without. To start with, just look at who's on death row."

From Avocation to Profession

Paretsky wrote all through high school and college, but never for publication. Writing, after all, she felt, was something writers did, not real people. Then she found a crime-writing course among the adult-ed evening offerings at Northwestern University, taught by Stuart Kaminsky, a much-respected crime writer and mentor to younger writers. When Paretsky began working on her first novel, she read and reread Robert B. Parker's first book, The Godwulf Manuscript, and Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake, "because I was so nervous about whether I could do it. My self-doubt and unsureness were enormous. So I followed the cadences of Chandler, the rising and falling action leading to physical confrontation. It wasn't until Killing Orders [Morrow, 1985] that I started telling the story as I wanted to tell it -- less about action, more about people." Another early influence was Michael Z. Lewin, who predates Parker and whom Paretsky considers "underrecognized." Reading writers like Lewin and Chandler and Parker, she says, "I got to thinking, 'I can do this, do hardboiled less hard, more personal.' "

Unlike some crime writers, Paretsky creates plots that are not only tough, but intricate and complex. "As a houseguest, I always bring too-elaborate gifts," she says, "because I feel just having me there isn't enough. My plots are the same. I feel like I have to give the reader more." For years, she worked in management at a multinational insurance company, and organizational issues still fascinate her. Because of her years in corporate America, she is one of the few crime writers who can make the reader care about "the people on the margins" while simultaneously explaining with complete clarity the workings of a complicated white-collar financial scam.

Paretsky's first book found a publisher when Kaminsky sent the finished manuscript to his own agent, Dominick Abel. About Abel, Paretsky has written, "I'll only say of Dominick, in the old Chinese words, that I would send him for horses." She has the same gratitude and respect for her longtime editor at Delacorte, Jackie Farber. "She's a critical reason why I've stayed with this publisher," she says. "She's one of a vanishing breed of editors. She has the capacity to look at the book you're trying to write, not the book she would have written."

Between the last V.I. Warshawski book (Tunnel Vision, Delacorte 1994) and Hard Time, Paretsky took a chance, and Delacorte took it with her: she wrote a book that was not a V.I. Warshawski novel. In fact, Ghost Country is not a mystery at all in the classic sense, although questions are asked in the beginning of the story and not answered until the end -- and some aren't answered at all.

"Writing," Paretsky says, "is like being a surgeon doing surgery on yourself. The stronger and braver you are, the closer to the bone you can cut. And the closer you cut, the more emotionally honest your books will be. Everything I write is an effort to move closer to the bone." Ghost Country, arguably classifiable as magical realism, written from multiple points of view rather than the classic private eye first person of the V.I. Warshawski novels, was "a stretch, a high-risk book." Paretsky isn't sure she accomplished everything she set out to do in the novel, but the writing process itself gave her a new faith in her craft. 'Just having taken those risks made me feel stronger," she says. "Until I wrote Ghost Country, I would not have called myself a writer. Now, I am a writer."

Hard Time, Paretsky feels, is her strongest V.I. Warshawski book in a while. (Many reviewers consider it her best yet.) After Ghost Country, she thought coming back to V.I. would be easy. After all, she knew the character intimately, through so many years and books. Nevertheless, Paretsky found herself going back and rereading some of her own early works, "to get V.I.'s voice back." But a little space turned out to be a good thing. "If you have a character you feel like you can't leave, you don't write well after a time. You feel like you're not your own master, and it shows in your writing. The freedom to come and go makes me feel more confident that I'll be coming back to her."

After Ghost Country, how did Paretsky know it was time for another V.I. Warshawski novel? "I don't write to a plan," she says. "I'm ready to start when the characters come to life in my mind more urgently than the world I can see, when I find myself thinking about them more than the people around me." And then what? "My husband calls it 'pawing the earth.' I sit down to write. I get up. I sit down and get up again. I go for a lot of snacks and ice cream. Then I start, with a milieu and a white-collar crime for the background story."

The background story details the mechanics of the crime, the mystery at the heart of the book. But, Paretsky says, "this is where the hand has to be quicker than the eye -- the foreground story has to distract the reader, and V.I., from the background story. The foreground story is the human story, the one I'm most personally engaged with." She sees people, "people I think are the major characters, and I write about them. Sometimes they turn out to be almost not present in the final book, but they're where I start." Paretsky d sn't plot out her novels in advance, which often means long trips down dead-end paths, but it's necessary: "I can only work by exploring the story, what it means in the context of this book to be alive and to be human. If you're rigid, you don't get these insights. The more you push on it, the less plausible it will be. The more you relax, the more it comes to you."\

Paretsky will keep experimenting, and she is equally sure she will return to V.I. Warshawski. She is at work now on a novel about Dr. Lottie Herschel, V.I.'s friend; she's also thinking about a book set in the rural Kansas of her childhood. But now she knows she can come and go with V.I. Warshawski. "Because I have that freedom, I'm more confident that I'll be coming back. I hope," she adds, "that my best work lies in front of me."

Her fans can only echo her husband on that: "If that's true," Courtenay Wright says, as the sun sets in Milwaukee, "it will be pretty damn good."

Rozan is the author of the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith private eye series (St. Martin's). Her latest book is Stone Quarry.