Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Fire Sale by Sara Paretsky


Rating: (Recommended)




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Private investigator, V.I. Warshawski returns in Sara Paretsky’s latest novel, Fire Sale, most of which is set in V.I.’s childhood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. While still recommending Fire Sale, I found that both V.I. and Paretsky seemed more tired on the pages of this book than in prior offerings. Even while tired, this duo will appeal to most readers looking to be entertained. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 5, “Imperial Relations,” pp. 36-43:


Offices in industrial spaces aren’t designed for the comfort or prestige of the inhabitant. Grobian got a bigger space than the tiny rooms I’d poked into earlier—it even included a closet in the far corner—but it was painted the same dirty yellow, held the same metal desk and chairs as the others, and, like them, even had a video cam in the ceiling. Buffalo Bill didn’t trust anyone, apparently.

Grobian himself was an energetic young man, thirty-something, shirt-sleeves rolled up to reveal muscular arms, with a big marine anchor tat­tooed on the left bicep. He looked like the kind of guy truckers would respect, with a square quarterback jaw jutting beneath a buzz haircut.

He frowned when he saw me behind the men. “You new on the job? You don’t belong in here—check in with Edgar Diaz in—“

“I’m V. I. Warshawski. We had an appointment at five-fifteen.” I tried to sound upbeat, professional, not annoyed that it was almost six now.

“Oh, yeah. Billy set that up. You’ll have to wait. These men are already late getting on the road.”

“Of course.” Women are supposed to wait on men; it’s our appointed role. But I kept the thought to myself: beggars have to have a sunny dis­position. I hate being a beggar.

When I looked around for a place to sit, I saw a woman behind me. She was definitely not a typical By-Smart employee, not with a face whose makeup had been as carefully applied as if her skin were a Vermeer canvas. Her clothes, too—a body-hugging jersey top over a lavender kilt artfully arranged to show black lace inserts—hadn’t been bought on a By-Smart paycheck, let alone off a By-Smart rack, and none of the ex­hausted workers I’d seen in the canteen could have the energy to create that toned supple body.

The woman smiled when she saw me staring: she liked attention, or perhaps envy. She was in the only chair, so I went to lean against a metal filing cabinet next to her. She held a binder in her lap, open to an array of numbers that meant nothing to me, but when she realized I was staring down at them she shut the book and crossed her legs. She was wearing knee-high lavender boots with three-inch heels. I wondered if she had a pair of flip-flops to put on before going to her car.

Two more men joined the four lined up at Grobian’s desk. When he’d finished with them, another three came in. They were all truckers, get­ting their loads approved, either for what they’d delivered or what they were getting ready to drive off with.

I was growing bored and even a bit angry, but I’d be even more upset if I blew a chance to get out from under the girls’ basketball team. I sucked in a deep breath: keep it perky Warshawski, and turned to ask the Woman if she was part of the warehouse’s management team.

She shook her head and smiled a little condescendingly. I would have to play twenty questions to get anything out of her. I didn’t care that much, but I needed to do something to pass the time. I remembered the trucker’s remark about the bedsheet queen. She either bought them or lay in them—maybe both.

“You the linen expert?” I asked.

She preened slightly: she had a reputation, people talked about her. She ordered all the towels and sheets for By-Smart nationwide, she said.

Before I could continue the game, Billy came back into the room with a thick sheaf of papers. “Oh, Aunt Jacqui, there are faxes for you in this bunch. I don’t know why they’ve sent them here instead of up to Rolling Meadows.”

Aunt Jacqui stood up, but dropped her binder in the process. Some of the papers fell out and fluttered to the floor, three landing under Gro­bian’s desk. Billy picked up the binder and put it on her chair.

“Oh, dear,” she murmured, her voice languid, almost liquid. “I don’t think I can crawl under the desk in these clothes, Billy.”

Billy set the faxes on top of her binder and got down on his hands and knees to fetch the scattered pages. Aunt Jacqui picked up the faxes, riffled through them, and extracted a dozen or so pages.

Billy scrambled back to his feet and handed her the sheets from her binder. “Pat, you ought to make sure that floor gets washed more often. It’s filthy under there.”

Grobian rolled his eyes. “Billy, this ain’t your mother’s kitchen, it’s a working warehouse. As long as the floor doesn’t catch on fire I can’t be bothered about how dirty it is or isn’t.”

One of the truckers laughed and cuffed Billy on the shoulder on his way out the door. “Time you went on the road, son. Let you see real dirt and you’ll come back and eat off Grobian’s linoleum.”

“Or let him wash it,” the remaining driver suggested. “That always makes dirt look good.”

Billy blushed but laughed along with the men. Pat chatted briefly with the last driver about a load he was taking to the Ninety-fifth Street store. ~ When the man left, Pat started to give Billy an order to go down to the loading bays, but Billy shook his head. “We need to talk to Ms. War-sha-sky, Pat.” He turned to me, apologizing for my long wait, adding that he’d tried to explain what I wanted, but did’t think he’d done a good job of it.

“Oh, yeah. Community service, we already do plenty of that.” Grobian’s frown returned. Busy man, no time for social workers, nuns, and other do-gooders.

“Yes, I’ve studied your numbers, at least the ones you make public.” I pulled a sheaf of papers out of my briefcase, spilling the flip-flops in their plastic bag onto the floor.

I handed business cards to Grobian, Billy, and Aunt Jacqui. “I grew up in South Chicago. I’m a lawyer now and an investigator, but I’ve come back as a volunteer to coach the basketball team at Bertha Palmer High.”

Grobian looked ostentatiously at his watch, but young Billy said, “I know some of the girls there, Pat, through our church exchange. They sing in the choir at—”

“I know you want money from us,” Jacqui interrupted in her languid voice. “How much and for what?”

I flashed an upbeat, professional smile and handed her a copy of a re­port I’d created on By-Smart’s community actions. I gave another set to Grobian and a third to Billy. “I know that By-Smart encourages grass­roots giving at its local stores, but only for small projects. The Exchange Avenue store gave out three one-thousand-dollar scholarships to college students whose parents work in the store, and the staff are encouraged to serve in local food pantries and homeless shelters, but your manager over on Exchange told me Mr. Grobian was in charge of larger giving for the South Side.”

“That’s right: I manage the warehouse, and I’m the South Chicago— Northwest Indiana district manager. We already support the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Firemen’s Survivor Fund, and several others.”

“Which is great,” I said enthusiastically. “Profits for the Exchange Av­enue store last year were a shade under one-point-five million, a little less than the national average because of the bad economy down here. The Store, as far as I could tell, gave away nine thousand dollars. For fifty-five thousand_”

Grobian shoved my report aside. “Who talked to you? Who gave out confidential store information?”

I shook my head. “It’s all on the Web, Mr. Grobian. You just have to know how to look. For fifty-five thousand, the store could cover the cost of uniforms, weight equipment, balls, and a part-time coach. You’d be real heroes on the South Side, and, of course, you’d get a substantial tax benefit from it as well. Heck, you might even be able to supply weight equipment out of old inventory.”

All I really wanted from By-Smart was a coach, and I figured for about twelve thousand they could get someone to commit to the job. She (or he) wouldn’t have to be a teacher, just someone who understood the game and knew how to work with young people. A graduate student who had played college ball would be good; someone who was doing a degree in sports management and training even better. I was hoping if I started with four or five times what I wanted, I might at least get a coach.

Grobian was still mad, though. He tossed my proposal into his waste­basket. Jacqui, with another of her languid movements, slid her papers toward the trash. They fell about a yard short.

“We never give that kind of money to an individual store,” Grobian said.

“Not to the store, Pat,” Billy objected, bending over to retrieve Aunt Jacqui’s papers. “To the school. It’s just the kind of thing Grandpa loves, helping kids who show enthusiasm for improving their lives.”

Ah: he was a Bysen. That was why he could set up meetings with beg­gars even though he was inexperienced and had a boss who didn’t want to hear about the matter. That meant Aunt Jacqui was a Bysen, too, so I didn’t have to keep playing twenty questions with her.

I smiled warmly at Billy. “Your grandfather went to this high school seventy years ago. Five of the girls on the team have parents who work for By-Smart, so it would be great synergy for the store and the community.” I winced at hearing corpu-speak fall so effortlessly from my lips.

“Your grandfather doesn’t believe in giving that kind of money to charity, Billy. If you don’t know that by now, you haven’t been listening to him very hard,” Jacqui said.

“That’s not fair, Aunt Jacqui. What about the wing he and Grandma built on the hospital in Rolling Meadows, and the mission school they started in Mozambique?”

“Those were big buildings that have his name on them,” Jacqui said. “A little program down here that he won’t get any glory for—”

“I’ll talk to him myself,” Billy said hotly. “I’ve met some of these girls, like I said, and when he hears their stories—”

“Large tears will fill his eyes,” Jacqui interrupted. “He’ll go, ‘Hnnh, hnnh, if they want to succeed they need to work hard, like I did. No one gave me any handouts, and I started out the same place they did, hnnh, hnnh.”

Patrick Grobian laughed, but Billy looked flushed and hurt. He be­lieved in his grandfather. To cover his confusion, Billy started sorting out the papers that Aunt Jacqui had dropped, separating my proposal from several sheets of fax paper.

“Here’s something from Adolpho in Matagalpa,” he said. “I thought we agreed not to work with him, but he’s quoting you—”

Jacqui took the papers back from him. “I wrote him last week, Billy, but maybe he didn’t get the letter. You’re right to point it out.”

“But it looks like he has a whole production schedule.”

Jacqui produced another dazzling smile. “I think you misread it, Billy, but I’ll make extra sure we’re all clear on this.”

Pat pulled my report out of his trash. “I moved too fast on this one, Billy; I’ll take a closer look at my numbers and get back to your friend. In the meantime, why don’t you go out to the loading bays, make sure that Bron at bay thirty-two has taken off—he has a tendency to linger, wast­ing time with the girls on the shift. And you, Ms.—uh, we’ll call you in a couple of days.”

Billy looked again at Aunt Jacqui, a troubled frown creasing his smooth young face, but he obediently got up to go. I followed him from the room.

“I’d be glad to get you any other information you want that might help your grandfather make a decision about the team. Maybe you’d like to bring him to one of our practices.”

His face lit up. “I don’t think he’d come, but I could, that is, if I could take off from here, maybe if I came in early, aren’t Mondays and Thurs­days your practice days?”

I was surprised and asked how he knew.

He flushed. “I’m in the choir and the youth group at my church, our church, I mean, the one my family goes to, and we do these exchanges with inner-city churches sometimes, like, where we trade ministers, and our choirs sing together and stuff, and my youth group has adopted Mount Ararat down on Ninety-first Street, and some of the kids at the church, they go to Bertha Palmer. Two of them play on the basketball team. Josie Dorrado and Sancia Valdéz. Do you know them?”

“Oh, yes: there are only sixteen girls on the team, I know them all. So how come you’re working here at the warehouse? Shouldn’t you be in college or high school or something yourself?”

“I wanted to do a year of service, something like the Peace Corps, after I finished high school, but Grandpa persuaded me to spend a year on the South Side. It’s not like he’s sick or dying or anything, but he wanted me to work for a year in the company while he was still around to, like, an­swer my questions, and meantime I can do service through the church and stuff. That’s why I know Aunt Jacqui is just being, well, cynical. She is sometimes. A lot of the time. Sometimes I think she only married Uncle Gary because she wanted—” He broke off, blushing even more darkly.

“I forgot what I was going to say. She is really committed to the com­pany. Grandpa, he doesn’t really like the ladies in the family to work in the store, not even my sister Candace, when she was running—but any­way, Aunt Jacqui, she has a degree in design, I think it is, or fabric, some­thing like that, and she persuaded Grandpa that she would go crazy staying at home. We beat Wal-Mart in towels and sheets every quarter since she took over the buying for those things, and even Grandpa is im­pressed with how thorough she is.”

Aunt Jacqui only married Uncle Gary because she wanted a piece of the Bysen family fortune. I could hear the accusations flying around the Bysen dinner table: Buffalo Bill was a tightwad, Aunt Jacqui was a gold digger. But the kid was a hardworking idealist. As I followed him along the corridors to the loading bays, I hoped I could get him to blurt out more indiscretions, like where or what Candace had been running, but he only explained how he came to have his nickname. His father was the oldest son—William the Second.

“It’s sort of a family joke, not that I’m crazy about it. Everyone calls Dad ‘Young Mister William,’ even though he’s fifty-two now. So I got nicknamed Billy the Kid. They think I shoot from the hip, see, and I know that’s what Pat is going to tell Dad about me bringing you in here, but don’t give up, Ms. War-sha-sky, I think it would be really great to help the basketball program. I promise you I’ll talk to Grandpa about it.”


Fire Sale touches on money, power, class, race, corporate responsibility and recklessness, and the complicated relationships that make life fascinating. Through it all, V.I. can be counted on to get the bad guys after asking hundreds of questions trying to get the facts.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2005 issue of Executive Times


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