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Collaring White Collar Crime

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Sara Paretsky considers an audience question during an October 13 reading at a Bailey's Crossroads bookstore.
(All photos by Ward Rinehart.)

White collar crime can get dirtier than anything done in the heat of passion. Just ask V. I. Warshawski or her creator Sara Paretsky. In every book, greed and profiteering lead to murderous impulses every bit as lethal as those born of emotional trauma or congenital madness. 

In Hard Time, Paretsky's first V. I. Warshawski mystery in five years, V. I. finds herself imprisoned for a crime she didn't commit so that a communications giant can safeguard one of its more valuable "properties." The mystery turns a search light on several key Paretsky themes: the far-reaching tentacles of corporate crime, the condition of American prisons and the state of the nation's media. Shortly before her October 13 reading at the Bailey's Crossroads, Va., Borders Bookstore, Paretsky talked to Crescent Blues about how themes and book came together, and where Paretsky and V. I. will go from here. 

Book: Sara Paretsky, Indemnity OnlyCrescent Blues: Your first V. I. Warshawski book, Indemnity Only, dealt with a workers compensation fraud scheme between an insurance corporation and a union. Did you ever work in insurance? 

Sara Paretsky: I spent almost ten years working for a large insurance company. I was always in marketing or marketing-related functions, but I'd also been providing support work for our claims department and the investigators. Whether they're insurance investigators or police or fire investigators, they always seem to be people who, with a nudge in a different direction, could have become criminals themselves. They're fascinated by the crimes they investigate.  

Our claims guys would sit around talk about great frauds they would have perpetrated had they been masterminding instead of investigating them. They always had ideas about how they would commit fraud and never get caught. I believe thinking that way makes good investigators. I never knew anyone who did anything illegal in the company I worked for, but I certainly drew heavily on the claims guys' stories when I was writing Indemnity Only

Crescent Blues: All your subsequent books in the V. I. series have dealt with large corporations or organizations which V. I. confronts, solving murders and revealing criminal practices of these entities. Was this route intentional? 

Book: Sara Paretsky, Blood ShotSara Paretsky: I wanted V. I. to specialize in white collar crime, partly because my long history in the business world -- almost 15 years, most of them with CNA Insurance in Chicago. So, it was a milieu I knew something about. Also, white collar crime hardly ever appears as a backdrop in crime novels. [The genre] is very often [focused on] highly personal stories: missing persons, entanglements or the violent school with a lot of random shooting. White collar crime can be -- It's insidious, it's widespread. If you have a hundred billion dollars at your disposal, you can inflict so much more damage than someone who's shooting a Saturday night special on the street. So I chose to set the series against that backdrop. 

Crescent Blues: You heavily research your subjects. 

Sara Paretsky: I try to do really careful research. I've always been a big reader of crime fiction. I did a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago a hundred years ago or so. The month before I took my doctor's exams, I read 24 crime novels and I still managed to pass. I'm sure it's because I read a lot of English crime novels, which included a lot of poetry, history and other subjects I needed to know [for my exams]. Now I feel an obligation to other students who ought to be reading their weighty tomes, but instead sneak one of my novels into the library. I think I might help the students pass their exams if I get the details right. 

Crescent Blues: What period of history did you focus on for your Ph.D.? 

Sara Paretsky: Well, my Ph.D. was in American Intellectual History, but my minor fields were Tudor/Stuart Puritanism and Victorian Science. 

Crescent Blues: Did you ever teach in these fields? 

Book: Sara Paretsky, Killing OrdersSara Paretsky: No. Actually, I taught for the first time last fall as a visiting professor of writing at Northwestern University in Evanston, outside Chicago. When I got my degree, the academic job market was really ferocious. That's when I retooled myself and became a corporate person. 

Crescent Blues: How did you feel as a corporate person, and how have you put your experience in the V. I. mysteries? 

Sara Paretsky: Corporate life, a large corporation, fills some need for people. I'm not sure what it is. Whether it's a sense you belong to something bigger than you, a mortal, and you belong to something immortal, although corporations come and go.  

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Paretsky believes corporate leaders too often assume the existence of the corporation is more important than its employees' lives.

I observed two characteristics at the company -- there were many features I observed, but I didn't take notes, which I bitterly regret, because I've forgotten a lot, being away so long. First, people have an enormous need to be close to the source of power, which in a corporation is the chief executive officer. You see a tremendous amount of vying, backstabbing and politicking for no other goal than to be close to the chairman. This objective seems to be a human need, but, ohhhhhh, is this behavior you really want to be doing?  

The other aspect is the organization's assuming an existence more important than its employees' lives. Many -- most if not all the corporate employees who work there take on this value. Also, I think one of the big changes in the last 15 or 10 years has been the enormous amount of conglomeration and the way that people's jobs have been destroyed. It's emotionally unsettling for people who were giving unconscious devotion and allegiance to this entity. It's unnerving to have your job taken out from under you.  

Book: Sara Paretsky, Burn MarksI'm not sure I've ever been able to use these circumstances as the backdrop of a novel, but in a way they underlie the crimes that V. I. ends up investigating. The crimes are always the actions taken to further the good of the company or the individual profit of a major officer of the company. [The crimes] are for the good of the company and the bad of the individual.  

For instance, in Hard Time two movements come together. One is the way in which the entertainment industry has gobbled up the news industry, turning news into entertainment. V. I.'s long-time friend and rival Murray Ryerson, an investigative reporter throughout the series, changes when his newspaper is bought by Global Entertainment, a big multimedia, Hollywood outfit. Global has no interest in investigative reporting. Murray's not fired, but he can't do investigative journalism. So he reinvents himself into a soft news person, hosting a television show for Global.  

In fact, my first on-air interview for the book was with a friend who works for a news station. I was at the station watching her. This station always conducted hard-hitting investigative reporting, but they're now part of a media conglomerate. So she's reading movie star horoscopes on the air. It's really, really hard, I think, for journalists now, and it's hard for viewers because we don't know whether we're getting news or some multi-conglomerate's idea of what it wants us to know. There are no really good ways an individual can get good news. It's not on the Web because that's just a nest of rumors and gossip and unsubstantiated stuff. So this theme is in Hard Time

Book: Sara Paretsky, Windy City BluesOur country incarcerating as many of our citizens as it can is the other thread and comes together [with the media conglomerate theme] through the prison industry. When researching the book, I read about a woman in Alabama. This woman, a bookkeeper, was arrested for possession of five grams of cocaine. She was a mother. She had a job. She had a family. Because of the mandatory minimum, she's doing 30 years for her first offense, possession of five grams of cocaine. Thirty years minimum without parole. Beside the fact that I find this case outrageous, I think it's a perversion of justice.  

Additionally, there you'd be, behind bars, doing your 30 years -- you'd go insane with boredom. I think boredom would be the biggest problem in prison next to the violence. So she's gotten a job as a bookkeeper with a hospital supply company that runs all its production behind bars.  

So, on the one hand I'm thinking, "OK, I see her point, this job is something to do during these 30 years." At the same time, however, I'm thinking, it's too easy to violate prisoner workers' rights when you operate an industry behind bars. Right now, this practice amounts to approximately $9 billion -- a drop in the corporate bucket, but the trend is growing rapidly. Also, you're undermining and corrupting the job market for individuals outside the prison walls because you're employing prisoners to whom you don't even have to pay minimum wage.  

Book: Sara Paretsky, Guardian AngelYou're also creating competition for people who are trying to pay rent, mortgages, clothe children and [pay for] other necessities, who don't have health care, and so on. I see both sides. If I was in prison, I'd absolutely want a job; yet at the same time I'm really uncomfortable with the way the prison industry operates. 

Crescent Blues: You mentioned in the "Thanks" section of Hard Time that you talked to a professor about Illinois prisons and an attorney who described treatment of inmates. Did you actually go to any prisons? 

Sara Paretsky - Continued