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Critical Mass (A V.I. Warshawski Novel) Hardcover – October 22, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. V.I. Warshawski helps out her closest friend, Vienna-born Dr. Lotty Herschel, when an unwelcome figure from Lotty's past resurfaces in MWA Grand Master Paretsky's stellar 17th novel featuring the Chicago PI (after 2012's Breakdown). Lotty and another Viennese girl, Kitty Binder, were sent to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport. After the war, Lotty settled in Chicago, while Kitty arrived in the area some years later. Lotty gets in touch with V.I. after Kitty's drug-addicted daughter, Judy, leaves a message claiming that she and her college-age son, Martin, whom she had left in Kitty's care, are in danger. Judy then vanishes. V.I.'s investigation takes her from the high-tech world of computer engineering to a literally stinking meth pit in a farm town outside Chicago, on the hunt for the now-missing Judy and Martin. V.I. also unearths WWII secrets related to the race to build an atomic bomb. Paretsky builds the suspense by deftly weaving the contemporary narrative with flashbacks to Lotty's Austrian childhood. Author tour. Agent: Dominick Abel, Dominick Abel Agency. (Nov.)
*Starred Review* As in previous V. I. Warshawski mysteries, Paretsky works elements of Chicago history into the story, this time referencing the city as a nexus for atomic research and linking the science to the work conducted in Austria during the Nazi occupation. When Judy, the drug-addicted daughter of Kitty Binder, a Holocaust survivor whom Lotty Herschel knew in wartime Vienna, calls Lotty for help and then disappears, Lotty turns to Vic. The investigation leads to a burned-out crack house and the mutilated body of a dead man but not to Judy. Kitty, a bitter, uncooperative, seemingly paranoid crank, seems uninterested in finding her estranged daughter, but she hires Vic to locate her grandson, giving Vic two missing-persons cases in the same family. Twentysomething Martin, whom Kitty raised, has vanished without a trace, and Vic and his grandmother are apparently not the only ones who want to find him. Martin’s boss is afraid that the young man, a physics genius, has absconded with sensitive company information, and he isn’t too forthright about what will happen if he finds Martin first. It’s clear V. I. has several puzzles to solve, and, as usual, she becomes the proverbial stick in the hornet’s nest, putting herself at risk as she follows a twisted trail of ruined lives rooted in the international race to develop an atomic weapon. Vic is at her stubborn, reckless, compassionate best in this complicated page-turner about selfish secrets passed down through generations. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Paretsky has been on a roll lately, her long-running, trailblazing series at its most dynamic since the early days. --Stephanie Zvirin
Top customer reviews
I love V.I. and love that she ages, that she tries and fails, but that she
I also love the history and science behind the nuclear arms race.
The characters are well defined, the plot complicated and intriguing.
It's been a while since I've read anything by Sara Paretsky. For some reason,
I thought she had stopped writing. I'm glad she hasn't. It's like reconnecting with an old friend.
The complex, well-researched plot centers around the life and career – including her fate in the Holocaust, which is key – of brilliant Austrian physicist Martina Saginor and her family and associates, and on a late-thirties invention whose provenance the bad guys are desperate to cover up. Martina’s great-grandson, who has vanished, is the inheritor of her brilliance, and her daughter, granddaughter, and one-time lover all loom large in the telling.
The plot is both intricate and satisfying, and contains some well-camouflaged red herrings and surprises as the action unfolds. It will come as no surprise to Paretsky fans that a top Chicagoland corporation is somehow involved, and that neither the corporation nor the Feds come off heroically. The Homeland Security agents involved are not only pretty dumb but also vicious thugs – caricatures. One hopes that the people who work for DHS are of higher caliber.
V.I.’s young cousin Petra does not appear here; she’s in the Peace Corps in Central America. I didn’t miss her; she was really getting rather tiresome.
Paretsky does rely on the long arm of coincidence a bit more than I like, but that’s just me (and Ross Macdonald; if something in his Lew Archer capers seems coincidental, it’s not.)
All in all, superbly plotted and executed, as always. For my money, both V.I. and her creator are at the top of their professions. Five stars.
Sara Paretsky has written 19 books. Most of them - 17 - were VI Warshawski novels and the other two are "stand-alones". Having read them all, I think her newest, "Critical Mass" is the deepest and best written so far. I suppose the title could refer to both the "critical mass" needed to produce an atomic bomb and the "critical mass" of people and plot needed to produce a good book. The atomic bomb stuff I can't explain - way above my pay grade! - but the second, the contents of this novel, I can try to explain.
"Critical Mass" is set in both Vienna and Chicago, the past and the present. The past is the 1900's to the 1940's and focuses on VI's old friend, Lotte Herschel's, family and friends as they find that being Jewish in Vienna, particularly after the Anschluss in 1938, as an increasingly dangerous business. Lotte and her brother are rescued at the last minute and sent to London - and safety - on the Kindertransport. Her family was left behind and all perished in the Holocaust.
Also sent with Lotte and her brother was Kathe Saginor, the daughter of a single mother, Martina Saginor, who was raised with Lotte in Vienna. Kathe, later Kitty, was regarded as a "poor relations" both in Vienna, and later in Chicago, where both women settled after the war. Martina Saginor was a genius who worked in the scientific academies looking into atom. She was later arrested by the Nazis and served as a slave laborer and vanished in the war.
But the Saginor family is not the only family in Paretsky's book. Martina's lover and father of her daughter, a Nobel prize winner, Benjamin Dzornen, has fled to Chicago with his family before the outbreak of war. He worked on the US atomic bomb development. He is joined in after-war effort to make a computer by Edward Breen, also a Chicagoan. As the years continue, Edward Breen has developed a large company around computers and programs. Members of these three families meet up in current-day Chicago and the murders and disappearances begin and VI finds herself in the center of it all.
Okay, I'm going to stop with plots and character descriptions because "Critical Mass" is so deeply written that there's no way I can do it justice here. Just know that everything - and everybody - meet up and get their lives resolved. Sort of, anyway, and in sometimes melancholy ways.
What I do want to write about is how Paretsky's novels and focus has evolved over the years. When she began writing VI as a character, VI was the daughter of a Polish-Catholic Chicago cop and an Italian mother, who was an opera singer. I sort of surmised that the mother was a Jewish refugee in Chicago, but apart from a few "hints", I never knew exactly what she was and what her "story" was. But as the books evolved, the parents and their backgrounds grew dimmer and VI's relationship with Dr Charlotte Herschel came to the forefront. While her previous books did allude to Dr Lotte and the Holocaust, this book is based upon what happened back then and how it has impacted today's world.
What I'm trying to write is that those readers used to Paretsky's older plots might be surprised at the plot of "Critical Mass". I enjoyed it, being both a former Chicagoan and a reader about the Holocaust. This book is so densely plotted, though, that perhaps the new Paretsky reader might want to begin with a previous book. For the old Paretsky-hands, "Critical Mass" is well worth diving into.
My only complaint is one that I've had for the last few books, which is that the books are written in real time but the characters never seem to age. It was particularly evident in this book where the plot is so intertwined with Lotty's WWII childhood. Some simple math puts her in her 80's, and yet we are supposed to believe that she is still performing surgeries and running a busy practice as she has for the 20+ years I have been reading these books.