V.I. Warshawski and the Female Likability Problem

As the half-Italian, half-Polish daughter of a retired police officer, I was immediately curious about V.I. Warshawski on a personal level. But Vic is far from the hard-boiled female hero I was expecting (hoping for?): I was expecting more of a Jessica Jones type of character (“a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking mess of a woman”) but Vic likes her fine clothes and hot baths, enjoys a good meal and keeps herself in impeccable physical shape. She’s weirdly socially conservative and pro-cop for a private investigator. In short, she feels much less like a gritty subversive hard-boiled detective who just happens to be female and more like a suburban mom’s escapist daydream. I can’t imagine the readership for the V.I. Warshsawski novels overlapping with the readership for Philip Marlowe stories, or even the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books).  There’s something, for lack of a better description, girly about V.I. Warshawski, despite her tough-gal act which to me is just a bit too contrived: just look at Paretsy’s “bio” for the character on her website. Yes, Vic drinks scotch whiskey neat and gets beaten up by thugs, but the narration surrounding these acts is painfully self-conscious: she practically boasts about her ability to talk-back to threatening men when it’s just dangerous enough to do so, and she always knows her limits when it comes to how much of that Jonnie Walker she should drink. Ultimately Vic is likable: for her flaws, she is respectful of her family upbringing, surprisingly maternal where she needs to be, financially and personally responsible, and kind more often than she is crass. For me, its this very likability that problematizes my viewing her as a gritty or hard-boiled detective. Vic is not an antihero, an unlikable loner with deep character flaws and recurrent trauma from a dysfunctional past; she doesn’t “dare” us to like her in spite of who she is, but assumes we will like her because she is a good person. For me, this taps into an old gendered problem of readership: an audience is much more likely to accept a flawed, unlikable male character than a female one. Since it feels like Paretsky is writing for middle class women in the 1980s, I certainly can’t blame her for not making V.I. “edgy” enough; it’s only in the past decade that we’ve seen real commercial success from flawed female antihero detectives like Jessica Jones and Lisbeth Salander—two realistic (?) female characters created by men.

Vic does seem to have one underlying flaw that isn’t mentioned explicitly in the text, or even really alluded to; I wonder if Paretsy is even consciously coding for it. V.I. seems to me to have some major body issues. At first I thought that Vic’s love of food was meant to be some kind of marker of self-acceptance, a note that she likes what she likes and doesn’t care of that’s attractive or not. But the detailing of food in this novel is almost obsessive—as obsessive as Vic’s workout routine and compulsion to stay in physical shape. She is constantly commenting on the clothing of others at inopportune moments (as in when she is being actively abducted from her apartment) and has no problem body shaming women for no real productive end—I can’t get out of my head the scene in chapter four where Vic comments on the “unlovely sag” in the secretary’s arms, a detail Vic can’t seem to stop fixating upon. It’s always a dangerous move to try to psychoanalyze literary characters, but I can’t stop wondering if this weird body fixation is meant to be V.I.’s issue or if it’s just one more reason why Sara Paretsy’s attempt at writing a gritty female character falls flat.