Indemnity Only Part 1 11-13-2012
Tonight was a very fun class, #emoboiled (my new moniker for the class thanks to Dr. Garcia) always makes me happy. We spent a most fo the first forty minutes talking smack (I was in rare form tonight, as were they) and revieweing the progress of the Wikipedia research projects, more on them in another post. The last 40 minutes were spent discussing Sara Paretsky’s first novel Indemnity Only (1980) —special thanks to Joe Ugoretz for recommending it—we’re loving it.
What I can’t get over about Indemnity Only is how much it frames the shifting cultural sensibility over the course of the semester. Over the first eleven weeks we’ve read Hemingway, Hammett, Fante, Cain, Chandler (well, we did watch Double Indemnity and Strangers on a Train), Highsmith, and Himes—each framing some part of the decade they were writing within. This worked well for contextualizing each of the novels, but they all seemed somewhat of a piece and gradually giving way to another historically. That is not the case with Indemnity Only at all. Moving from [[Chester Himes]’s Cotton Comes to Harlem to Indemnity Only feels like we crossed into a whole new universe of hardboiled—and I personally love it.
Paretsky’s attention to life’s details when it comes to V.I. Wasrshawski is really compelling.I still have to finish the novel, but the ways in which this book ushers in the post-Union era, the Reagan 80s, and Jane Fonda’s Workout video franchise. It is startling how much this book seems a product of its moment, and for that reason is in many ways that much more resonant today. I also have to recognize that this is the first novel I was alive and had memory when it was written —which may impact my reading. But rather than just say all this, let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.
Warshawski is a Private Detective, but most of her cases are industrial cases that deal with businesses and involve corporate clients. What struck me about this is the moment when she talks about trying to round up a printer for the $1500 he owes her because she had “saved his firm from being muscled out by a national chain last spring” (2). This idea of saving an independent business from a corporate chain seems like an all too appropriate reflection of private investigator work in the late 1970s, early 1980s. For the case that starts the frame for the book, she was “hired to find a person so her boyfriend would go to business school” (6). Business school? Really? That is such a phenomenon of the 1980s, right? Risky Business was all about this!
Warshawski is a PI that actually exercises at least four days a week. Chapter 2 opens up with ehr taking a 5 miles run around lake Michigan and commenting that her lack of discipline “makes it easier to exercise than to diet.” At this point I am waiting for the Weight Watchers calorie count book to get pulled out.
She drives a Chevy Monza. There is no limit to the awesome of that detail.
Another thing I found odd, but compelling, was when Warshawski throws out crazy demographic stats about college and income when walking around the University of Chicago campus:
Supposedly a fifth of the student body came from homes with an annual income of fifty thousand dollars or more, but I’d hate to use looks to decide which fifth. (12)
And on just the next page she talks about “the Wimpy’s I remembered in the nearby shopping center had been replaced by a cool, attractive, and quasi-Greek restaurant” (13). Strip malls, with quasi-ethnic food dotting the landscape of this novel? I am really struck by how of the 1980s moment this book is. She references Edward G. Robinson in the first part of the novel (and Philip Marlowe a bit later), and these are just a few examples from the first thirteen pages of both pop culture and a hardboiled nostalgia for the tradition. There are many, many more. In many ways it is not dissimilar from the joy and satisfaction I get from reading another master of this kind of pop cultural detail emerging as a writer at this moment, Stephen King.
P.S. — On page 14 she describes a stereo system setup with a Kenwood turntable and JBL speakers to indicate someone has money. I don’t even know if I can begin to describe for you how 1980s that is unless you lived the 80s. Warshawski #4life.
The students are totally and superbly seriously emo in the most hyperbolically pseudo-tragic way.
Add bombastic and you have the instructor.
What a riot and privilege to listen in via #DS106Radio to today’s class meeting. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire meeting, especially the last portion of the class that focused on the latest text.
I am getting this book. I am watching this movie.
Unfamiliar with this author’s work, I wonder how her own gender liberates (or restrains, impacts) her to make her hard-boiled female protagonist more or less feminine. Is the protagonist a feminine character? Or is she a hard-boiled detective with a vagina? Does she have to be different in gendered ways to achieve success?
To seek clues to the answers to my questions I followed the Wikipedia link provided in this post and then found the Gale Biography in Context page for Paretsky http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/bic1/ReferenceDetailsPage/ReferenceDetailsWindow?displayGroupName=Reference&disableHighlighting=false&prodId=BIC2&action=e&windowstate=normal&catId=&documentId=GALE|K2406000432&mode=view&userGroupName=fairfax_main&jsid=02fc35723fa8e96616a5e5de4d9eff9b which states:
“Warshawski is a feminist, her view of the world honed by experiences with an underground abortion referral service, civil rights freedom marches, and a stint in the public defender’s office; as a private investigator she continues her work for women, for equality, and for fairness. Her targets in each of the novels are entrenched social institutions, secure in their power and privilege.”
This comment addresses the protagonist and not the author. Or does it? Could a female writer birth and nurture a female protagonist through a hard-boiled scape, across time without embedding herself within the character?
Further, and not least, could Paretsky’s own feminism and pro-social agenda be laid out and evidenced by her long-term commitment to a single character, one she has made iconic within the genre? Is V.I. Warshawski Paretsky’s manifesto?
More sleuthing is necessary, but first I’ve gotta track down the text and the movie. [Back asswards I know.]
As always, thanks Jim for opening your classroom and pedagogy to conversation and comradeship.
Hardboiling in Portland,
Sara Paretsky wrote an autobiography, Writing in an Age of Silence which you may find interesting. Search inside the book for the “gates of hell” quote. My wife couldn’t believe that came from a teacher and not a character in a novel.
While Indemnity Only seems like a big jump from Himes, there are connections in Paretsky’s background. Her experience in Chicago with the Civil Rights movement was a defining moment for her. And while she was campaigning against racism, the related issue of sexism was something she had to cope with throughout her life. Upon entering the University of Chicago, she says, “my father told me not to be surprised if I failed, since it was a first-rate school and mine was a second-rate mind.” Coming from a household like that, it’s not surprising that she champions the underdogs.
Glad the suggestion turned out to be a good one for the class! When those books came out, I was close with someone who worked at Womanbooks on the upper west side (now long gone) and I got to read each new book in hardcover (an unbelievable luxury for me in those days). Paretsky came to the store for a signing once, too. I remember buying a copy of that one (don’t remember which one it was), and getting it signed in total fanboy mode.
There was VI Warshawski movie, too (Kathleen Turner, I think). But it was terrible.
Oh, yes. That movie in your banner image! 🙂
Thanks for the information. I’ve now got to get my hands on the book to make my own conclusions. G
Personally, I am not that big of a fan of History, so I do not know much about the eras these books are from, but I agree with you that there is a large jump to this book. It seems, to me, to be more modern, which makes sense because it was written in the 80’s.
I also really love the perceptions above that you received! I am excited that other people want to get the book and movie just from how we discussed it.
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