Critical Mass (V. I. Warshawski Series #16)

Critical Mass (V. I. Warshawski Series #16)

4.3 10
by Sara Paretsky
     
 

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Called a "career-crowning triumph"  and named one of the the top 50 mysteries and thrillers of the last 5 years by the London Sunday Times, Sara Paretsky is back with Critical Mass the latest entry in the VI Warshawski series, 

"Vic is at her stubborn, reckless, compassionate best in this complicated page-turner about

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Overview

Called a "career-crowning triumph"  and named one of the the top 50 mysteries and thrillers of the last 5 years by the London Sunday Times, Sara Paretsky is back with Critical Mass the latest entry in the VI Warshawski series, 

"Vic is at her stubborn, reckless, compassionate best in this complicated page-turner about selfish secrets passed down through generations. Paretsky has been on a roll lately, her long-running, trailblazing series at its most dynamic since the early days."  —Booklist on Critical  Mass

V.I. Warshawski’s closest friend in Chicago is the Viennese-born doctor Lotty Herschel, who lost most of her family in the Holocaust.  Lotty escaped to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport with a childhood playmate, Kitty Saginor Binder.  When Kitty’s daughter finds her life is in danger, she calls Lotty, who, in turn, summons V.I. to help.  The daughter’s troubles turn out to be just the tip of an iceberg of lies, secrets, and silence, whose origins go back to the mad competition among America, Germany, Japan and England to develop the first atomic bomb.  The secrets are old, but the people who continue to guard them today will not let go of them without a fight.  

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Marilyn Stasio
There are plenty of women among the ranks of genre authors, but not many like Sara Paretsky, whose intellectually lively mysteries featuring her gutsy Chicago private eye, V. I. Warshawski, are fired by political causes and feminist social issues…Paretsky makes us feel both her own love for science and her fury at the way women like Martina have been denied the pursuit of their passion.
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/02/2013
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.)
From the Publisher
Praise for CRITICAL MASS

“This is Paretsky at her best, describing with a reporter’s eye and a painter’s vision the light and texture of a place. A scene that throbs with menace concludes with a shock. Yet the tension, palpable from the first page, is sustained and deftly heightened by brief flashbacks to a wartime and postwar world of shifting loyalties and dangers. ...Warshawski, for her part, must confront not only killers but also crooked federal agents. Which she does, as always, without breaking her stride.” —The Washington Post
 
 
Critical Mass proves that this gifted author is still, justifiably, a star. …Paretsky has an impressive knack for weaving gripping history into her swift plot.”
                                                                        —The Seattle Times
 
“Sara Paretsky seems to have renewed creative energy, evident in pages that almost turn themselves.”
                        —Erie-Times News
 
“There are plenty of women among the ranks of genre authors, but not many like Sara Paretsky, whose intellectually lively mysteries featuring her gutsy Chicago private eye, V.I. Warshawski, are fired by political causes and feminist social issues….Paretsky makes us feel both her own love for science and her fury at the way women like Martina have been denied the pursuit of their passion.”
                        —Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
 
“Readers don't have to understand all the physics to get inside this riveting story.”
                        —Shelf Awareness
 
"With entombments, solved mysteries, loose ends neatly tied, good writing and a little bit of love, Critical Mass is a thoroughly satisfying read."
Saint Louis Post-Dispatch
 
"Sara Paretsky mystery capers are always full of twists and turns, including surprising elements that this reviewer eagerly anticipates when reading her books. CRITICAL MASS is a complex family mystery that reaches from the past into the modern day, and is one of Paretsky’s best….It takes a character like V.I. Warshawski, who is willing to see justice served at any cost, to get to the truth. And this is exactly what has endeared Paretsky’s time-tested heroine to so many faithful readers."
                        —BookReporter.com
 
“A daring departure for Paretsky, combining her interests in women’s history, science and the Holocaust – and is a career crowning triumph.”
                        —The Sunday Times (London)
 
“Although she has been writing about Vic for more than 30 years, Paretsky always keeps the character fresh and believable. Vic feels the blows and tumbles she takes more than she used to, but she's as relentless as ever. In Critical Mass, both Warshawski and Paretsky are at the top of their forms.”
Tampa Bay Times
 
“As usual, V.I.’s quest is fraught with plenty of danger and white-knuckle moments. … It is as much a breathless mystery as a historical delving into science and wartime academic politics. An intellectual mystery that will please the author’s many fans.”
Library Journal
 
“V.I. has a charismatic and blistering way of bringing old secrets to light.”  – Kirkus
 
“Stellar…Paretsky builds suspense by deftly weaving the contemporary narrative with flashbacks.”
                        —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“Paretsky has been on a roll lately, her long-running, trailblazing series at its most dynamic since the early days.”
                                    —Booklist (starred review)

Library Journal
10/01/2013
Paretsky's latest V.I. Warshawski novel (after Breakdown) has her famed private investigator investigating the science behind the atomic bomb. Answering a distress call, V.I. finds a horrific crime scene but little evidence of the woman she seeks. The investigation quickly snowballs as she learns about the connection of the missing woman's family to her friend Lotty Herschel. As a child, Lotty escaped Nazi Austria on the Kindertransport with her friend Kitty Binder; now Kitty's daughter, Judy, and Judy's estranged son have disappeared. V.I. uncovers connections among computer design, physics research, and family secrets that lead to dangerous encounters and the reasons behind their disappearances. She finds decades-old truths hidden in the name of pride, vanity, and capitalism. As usual, V.I.'s quest is fraught with plenty of danger and white-knuckle moments. VERDICT Paretsky's crime novel turns quickly from a simple missing-persons case into one involving national security, intellectual-property patent law, corrupt local officials, drug lords, and wartime family secrets. It is as much a breathless mystery as a historical delving into science and wartime academic politics. An intellectual mystery that will please the author's many fans. [See Prepub Alert, 4/29/13.]—Julie Kane, Sweet Briar College Lib., VA
Kirkus Reviews
2013-09-01
V.I. Warshawski tackles the monstrous legacy of early nuclear-fission research. Somebody is trying to kill her, strung-out Judy Binder tells Dr. Charlotte "Lotty" Herschel, who runs the Chicago drug clinic where she's been a revolving-door patient. So Lotty asks her old friend V.I. Warshawski to drive downstate to Palfry Township to check on her. V.I. doesn't find Judy, but she does find two mastiffs, one shot to death, the other seriously wounded, and the corpse of Judy's friend Ricky Schlafly, a meth cooker who came home from Chicago to get killed in the middle of a cornfield. Still looking for Judy, V.I. questions her mother, Kitty Binder, in Skokie and learns that Judy's son Martin, a brainy computer tech at Metargon, went missing 10 days ago. In the first of many bait-and-switch instances, V.I. decides that she'd rather hunt for Martin than Judy and even talks hard-bitten Kitty into bankrolling her search. The trail will lead her all the way back to the Uranverein, where Kitty's mother, Martina Saginor, worked with a circle of Nazi physicists to split the atom even though they knew their success would fuel Hitler's war machine. Back in the present, meanwhile, Cordell Breen, who inherited Metargon ("Where the Future Lies Behind") from the father who developed the BREENIAC architecture that drove early computer research, makes it clear that he's just as interested as Kitty in the disappearance of Martin, who'd been closer than he would have liked to Breen's Harvard-educated daughter Alison. There'll be more fatalities, more digging into the past, more family skeletons, more brushes with intrusive government agencies and more flashbacks to the early years of the century before a showdown at another farm finally makes it safe for V.I. to venture out in public again. Beneath the fierce scientific rivalries, the targets are so familiar that there's little room for mystery, though V.I. has a charismatic and blistering way of bringing old secrets to light.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781410463456
Publisher:
Gale Group
Publication date:
11/07/2013
Series:
V. I. Warshawski Series, #16
Edition description:
Large Print
Pages:
685
Sales rank:
1,484,742
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

1

Hell’s Kitchen

The sun scorched my back through my thin shirt. It was September, but out on the prairie, the heat still held a mid-summer ferocity.

I tried the gate in the cyclone fence, but it was heavily padlocked; when I pushed hard to see if it would open enough for me to slide through, the metal burned my fingers. A camera and a microphone were mounted on top of the gatepost, but both had been shot out.

I backed away and looked around the empty landscape. Mine had been the only car on the gravel county road as I bumped my way down from the turnoff in Palfry. Except for the crows circling and diving into the brown cornstalks across the road, I was completely alone. I felt tiny and vulnerable under the blue bowl of the sky. It closed over the earth in all directions, seeming to shut out air, to let in nothing but light and heat.

Despite dark glasses and a visored cap, my eyes throbbed from the glare. As I walked around the house, looking for a break in the fence, purple smoke rings danced in front of me.

The house was old and falling down. Glass had broken out, or been shot out, of most of the windows. Someone had nailed slabs of plywood over them, but hadn’t put much effort into the job: in several places the wood swung free, secured by only a couple of nails. Behind the plywood, someone had stuffed pieces of cardboard or tatty cloth around the broken panes.

The steel fence had revolving spikes on top to discourage trespassers like me. Signs warned of guard dogs, but I didn’t hear any barking or snuffling as I walked the perimeter.

In front, the house was close to the fence and to the road, but in the back the fence enclosed a large stretch of land. An old shed had collapsed in one corner. A giant pit, filled with refuse and stinking of chemicals, had been dug near the shed. Jugs, spray cans of solvent, and all the other fixings of a meth operation fought with coffee grounds and chicken bones for top stench.

It was behind the shed that I found the opening I needed. Someone had been before me with heavy steel cutters, taking out a piece of fence wide enough for a car to drive through. The cuts were recent, the steel along the pointed ends shiny, unlike the dull gray of the rest of the metal. As I passed between the cuts, the skin on my neck prickled with something more than heat. I wished I’d brought my gun with me, but I hadn’t known I was coming to a drug house when I left Chicago.

Whoever cut the fence had dealt with the back door in a similarly economic way, kicking it in so that it hung on one hinge. The smell that rolled out the open door—metallic, like iron, mixed with rotting meat—was all too easy to recognize.. I pulled my shirt up over my nose and looked cautiously inside. A dog lay just beyond the doorway, his chest blown open. Some large-caliber something had taken him down as he tried to protect the losers he lived with.

“Poor old Rottweiler, your mama never meant you to guard a drug house, did she?” I whispered. “Not your fault, boy, wrong place, wrong time, wrong people.”

Flies were busy in his wounds; the ends of his ribs were already exposed, patches of white beneath the black of dried blood and muscle. Insects had eaten out his eyes. I felt my lunch start to rise up and made it down the steps in time to throw up in the pit by the shed.

I went back to my car on wobbly legs and collapsed on the front seat. I drank some water from the bottle I’d brought with me. It was as hot as the air and tasted rubbery, but it settled my stomach a bit. I sat for some minutes watching a farmer move up and down a remote field, dust billowing around him. He was too far away for me to hear; the only sound came from the wind in the corn, and the crows circling above it.

When my legs and stomach calmed down, I took the big beach towel I use for my dogs from the backseat. In the trunk I found an old T-shirt that I slit open so I could tie it over my nose and mouth. Armed with this makeshift mask, I returned to the house. I waved the towel hard enough to dislodge most of the flies, then covered the dog.

When I stepped over his body, it was into a kitchen from hell. A scarred wooden hutch, once painted white, was filled with spray cans of starter fluid, drain cleaner, jars part-full of ugly-looking liquids, eye droppers, Vicks inhalers, and gallon jugs labeled “muriatic acid.” A makeshift lab hood with an exhaust vent had been constructed over the hutch. Half-buried in the filth were a number of industrial face masks.

Whoever had kicked in the door had also pulled linoleum from the floor and pried up some of the rotting boards underneath. I squatted and pointed my flashlight through an opening between the exposed joists. Water heater, furnace, stood on the dirt floor below me, but no bodies as far as I could tell. Cool air rose from the basement, along with a smell of leaf mold that seemed wholesome in contrast to the chemicals around me.

I straightened and played my light around the room. It was hard to tell how much of the shambles had been caused by the dog killers and how much by the natives.

I stepped over jugs that had been knocked to the floor, skirted a couple of plug-in heaters, and moved into the rooms beyond.

It was an old farmhouse, with a front room that had once been a formal parlor, judging by the remnants of decorative tiles around the empty fireplace. These had been pried out of the mantel and shattered. Someone had held target practice against an old rolltop desk. An angry hand had smashed the drawers and scattered papers around the floor.

I stooped to look at them. Most were past-due notices from the county for taxes and for garbage pickup. The Palfry Public Library wanted a copy of Gone With the Wind that Agnes Schlafly had checked out in 1979.

Scraps of photos were all that remained of a savagely mangled album. When I dropped it back on the scrap heap, it dislodged one intact picture. It was an old photo, bleached and scarred from its time in the meth house, which showed a dozen or so people gathered around a large metal egg balanced on a giant tripod. It looked like a cartoon version of a pod landing from outer space, but the group around it looked at the camera with solemn pride. Three women, in the longer skirts and thick-heeled shoes of the 1930s, sat in the middle; five men stood behind them, all in jackets and ties.

I frowned over it, wondering what the metal egg could possibly be. Pipes ran through it; perhaps it was the prototype of a machine to ferry milk from cow to refrigerated storage. Just because it was an oddity, I stuck it into my bag.

The adjacent room contained a couple of card tables and some chairs with broken backs. Empty pizza cartons, chicken bones, and a bowl of cereal that was growing mold: I could see it as a Bosch still life.

A staircase led to a second floor; tucked underneath it was a stopped-up toilet. A better detective than I might have looked inside, but the smell told me more than I wanted to know.

Three bedrooms were built under the eaves at the top of the stairs. Two of them held only mattresses and plastic baskets. These had been upended, spilling dirty clothes over the floor. The mattresses had been slit, so that hunks of batting covered the clothes.

There’d been an actual bed and a dresser in the third bedroom, but these, too, had been ripped apart. An eight-by-ten of a young woman holding a baby had been torn from the frame, which itself had been broken in half and tossed onto the shredded bedclothes.

I picked up the photo, cautiously, by the edges. The print was so faded that I couldn’t make out the woman’s face, but she had a halo of dark curls. I slipped the picture into my shoulder bag along with the one of the milk pod.

A large poster of Judy Garland, with the caption Somewhere Over The Rainbow, hung by one corner over the bedstead, the tape ripped away from the other edges. I wondered if that was the drug user’s joke: “way up high.” It was hard to imagine a meth addict as a purveyor of irony, but it’s easy to be judgmental about people you’ve never met.

The few clothes in the closet—a gold evening gown, a velvet jacket that had once been maroon, and a pair of designer jeans—had also been slit.

“You got somebody pretty pissed off, didn’t you,” I murmured to whoever wore those clothes. My voice sounded odd in the dismembered room.

If there’d been anything to find in this ruined house, the dog’s killers already had it. In my days with the public defender’s office, I used to see this kind of destruction with depressing frequency.

Most likely the invaders had been hunting for more drugs. Or they felt the drug dealers had done them out of something. The addicts I’d known would have traded their mother’s wedding ring for a single hit and then come back to shoot up the place so they could retrieve their jewelry. I’d represented one woman who killed her own son when he couldn’t get back the ring he’d traded for a rock of crack.

I climbed down the steep stairs and found the door that led to the basement. I walked partway down the stairs, but a spider the size of my hand scuttling from my flashlight kept me from descending all the way. I shone my flash around but didn’t see signs of blood or battle.

I left through the front door so that I wouldn’t have to wade through the kitchen again. The door had a series of dead bolts, as unnecessary an investment as the security camera over the padlocked gate. Whoever had been here before me had shot them out.

Before retreating through the gap in the fence, I found a board in the high weeds and used it to poke through the open pit. It held so many empty bottles that I didn’t want to climb down in it, but as far as I could tell, no one was hidden among them.

I took a few pictures with my camera phone and headed for the exit. I was just skirting the fence, heading to the road, when I heard a faint whimpering from the collapsed shed. I pushed my way through weeds and rubble and pulled apart the siding. Another Rottweiler lay there. When it saw me, it feebly thumped its stub of a tail.

I bent slowly. It made no effort to attack me as I cautiously felt its body. A female, painfully thin, but uninjured as far as I could tell. She’d gotten tangled in a mass of old ropes and fence wires. She’d fled into the shed when her partner was murdered, I was guessing, then panicked and worked herself deep into the makeshift net. I slowly pried the wires away from her chest and legs.

When I moved away and squatted, hand held out, she got to her feet to follow me, but collapsed again after a few steps. I went back to my car for my water bottle and a rope. I poured a little water over her head, cupped my hand so she could drink, tied the rope around her neck. Once she was rehydrated, she let me lead her slowly along the fence to the road. Out in the daylight, I could see the cuts from where the wires had dug into her, but also welts in her dirty black fur. Some vermin had beaten her, and more than once.

When we reached my car, she wouldn’t get in. I tried to lift her, but she growled at me, bracing her weak legs in the weeds along the verge, straining against the rope to get out into the road. I dropped the rope and watched as she staggered across the gravel. At the cornfield, she sniffed among the stalks until she found what she was looking for. She headed into the corn, but was so weak that she kept falling over.

“How about if you stay here and let me find what you’re looking for?” I said to her.

She looked at me skeptically, not believing a city woman could find her way through a field, but unable to go any farther herself. I couldn’t tie her to the corn—she’d pull that over. I finally ordered her to stay. Whether she’d been trained or just was too weak to go on, she collapsed where she was and watched as I headed into the field.

The stalks were higher than my head, but they were brown and dry and didn’t provide any shield from the sun. All around me insects zinged and stung. Prairie dogs and a snake slipped away at my approach.

The plants were set about a yard apart, the rows appearing the same no matter which direction I looked. It would have been easy to get lost, except I was following a trail of broken stalks toward the spot where the crows continued to circle.

The body was splayed across the corn like a snow angel. Crows were thick around the shoulders and hands and they turned on me with ferocious cries.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for CRITICAL MASS
 
“This is Paretsky at her best, describing with a reporter’s eye and a painter’s vision the light and texture of a place. A scene that throbs with menace concludes with a shock. Yet the tension, palpable from the first page, is sustained and deftly heightened by brief flashbacks to a wartime and postwar world of shifting loyalties and dangers. ...Warshawski, for her part, must confront not only killers but also crooked federal agents. Which she does, as always, without breaking her stride.” —The Washington Post
 
 
Critical Mass proves that this gifted author is still, justifiably, a star. …Paretsky has an impressive knack for weaving gripping history into her swift plot.”
                                                                        —The Seattle Times
 
“Sara Paretsky seems to have renewed creative energy, evident in pages that almost turn themselves.”
                        —Erie-Times News
 
“There are plenty of women among the ranks of genre authors, but not many like Sara Paretsky, whose intellectually lively mysteries featuring her gutsy Chicago private eye, V.I. Warshawski, are fired by political causes and feminist social issues….Paretsky makes us feel both her own love for science and her fury at the way women like Martina have been denied the pursuit of their passion.”
                        —Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
 
“Readers don't have to understand all the physics to get inside this riveting story.”
                        —Shelf Awareness
 
"With entombments, solved mysteries, loose ends neatly tied, good writing and a little bit of love, Critical Mass is a thoroughly satisfying read."
Saint Louis Post-Dispatch
 
"Sara Paretsky mystery capers are always full of twists and turns, including surprising elements that this reviewer eagerly anticipates when reading her books. CRITICAL MASS is a complex family mystery that reaches from the past into the modern day, and is one of Paretsky’s best….It takes a character like V.I. Warshawski, who is willing to see justice served at any cost, to get to the truth. And this is exactly what has endeared Paretsky’s time-tested heroine to so many faithful readers."
                        —BookReporter.com
 
“A daring departure for Paretsky, combining her interests in women’s history, science and the Holocaust – and is a career crowning triumph.”
                        —The Sunday Times (London)
 
“Although she has been writing about Vic for more than 30 years, Paretsky always keeps the character fresh and believable. Vic feels the blows and tumbles she takes more than she used to, but she's as relentless as ever. In Critical Mass, both Warshawski and Paretsky are at the top of their forms.”
Tampa Bay Times
 
“As usual, V.I.’s quest is fraught with plenty of danger and white-knuckle moments. … It is as much a breathless mystery as a historical delving into science and wartime academic politics. An intellectual mystery that will please the author’s many fans.”
Library Journal
 
“V.I. has a charismatic and blistering way of bringing old secrets to light.”  – Kirkus
 
“Stellar…Paretsky builds suspense by deftly weaving the contemporary narrative with flashbacks.”
                        —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“Paretsky has been on a roll lately, her long-running, trailblazing series at its most dynamic since the early days.”
                                    —Booklist (starred review)

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