Sara Paretsky is best known for her crime novels. These mysteries go beyond Mike Hammer and Hercule Poirot not only in the complexities of the crimes committed, but also in the context Paretsky creates and the politics of the narrator and her protagonists. They are not mere stories of private eyes that solve a crime via force and intellect. Her tales actually note and include the social realities of the criminals and the crimes of the authorities and the system they uphold. As a reader who likes crime fiction of any sort except for forensics, I consider Paretsky to be one o f the best in the genre. Indeed, she is right up there with Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosely and Henning Mankell. Given her record of excellence, it was with great curiosity that I began Ms. Paretsky’s latest novel, Bleeding Kansas.
To begin with, this is not a private eye novel. There is a dead body or two lurking in the story, but that is not the real crime of the tale. In fact, there is no mystery solved in these pages, but several are revealed. They involve the infidelities of small town America and the the emotional depths the death of a son in a meaningless war can lead one to. Bleeding Kansas examines the reality of how not taking a side is in the final analysis, taking a side against the very thing you believe in.
This is the story of a Midwestern family whose legacy extends back to the Christian inspired abolitionists that moved to Kansas when it was a territory whose fate as either a slaveholding state or a state where no one could be held in bondage was dependent on the white population moving to this open land back in the mid-1800s. One other family also figures predominantly in the narrative. This family also has ties to the abolitionist movement and its determination to prevent the slavers from controlling Kansas. Generations have obviously passed and both families have rested their legacies and either become passive or turned into that legacy’s opposite. It takes an outsider from Chicago to revive one family’s historical past and in so doing incur their opposites undying and bitter wrath. Beneath this tale of two families lies different perceptions of religion, sexuality, and life itself. It also takes the insight of her adolescent daughter to reveal the stories hidden in the Kansas corn.
Told mostly through the eyes of this family’s teenage daughter and the accompanying angst, love and disgust with the adult world she is discovering, Paretsky’s tale presents the reader with a husband who just wants to farm, a mother whose principles and intellect lead her to Wiccan ritual and antiwar protests, and a brother whose athletic prowess is of little interest to him despite its importance to small town America. Thrown into the mix is a New York heiress come to make a home in a previously abandoned family farm, a bitter and twisted religiously fanatic woman and her equally misanthropic son, and the war in Iraq.
There are elements in Bleeding Kansas that seem impossibly exaggerated. Fundamentalist Christians whose fear of sexuality leads them to incredibly unChristian acts of intolerance. Orthodox Jews praying to a red colored calf. Exaggerated that is, until you read something in today’s newspaper that is equally impossible to believe. It is then that the reader realizes that this fictional world spun out of the Kansas prairie by Paretsky is possibly less strange than the world we find ourselves in each morning when we wake up. In short, what we considerable reasonable and real is only that which we know about. Even in Paretsky’s Kansas town outside of Lawrence, the unreality of the outside world can enter and become real. And it does. In its wake it unearths old enmities and new hatreds. Domestic struggles work themselves out in a nation’s wars accompanied by the death that comes with that war.
Ultimately, this is a novel about a battle for a nation’s soul. Some might frame it in terms of a struggle between good and evil-with each side choosing the good and the evil. However, ever since George Bush began defining the world in those terms staying away from them has seemed the intelligent way to go. Especially if one understands that their meaning is quite subjective. Instead, suffice it to say that this novel is about the cultural battles that have occurred throughout the history of United States, but most significantly ever since the 1960s. These struggles are of course more than merely cultural. Indeed, they are once again quite political and often related to one’s opinions on multiple issues that define one’s life.
Ms. Paretsky is a mystery writer. In Bleeding Kansas she has written about the mysteries of life. What is it that makes a mother suffer at the death of her child. Why do young men go to war? What is it about religious faith that creates fanaticism and intolerance? Obviously, no detective is going to solve mysteries such as these and neither are we. Of course, that is not Paretsky’s intention in Bleeding Kansas. She presents and examines these mysteries in her fictional narrative in a manner quite compelling, even if there is no cosmic detective to solve them. At once as contemporary as today’s news and as old as the musings of the ancients, Ms. Paretsky proves once again that these mysteries will always make a story worth telling.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org