Critical Mass


Sara Paretsky is a bestselling author and Critical Mass, published in 2014, is another entertaining offering featuring feisty Chicago private eye Vic (short for Victoria) Warshawski.

The title refers to the historical element of the plot, which involves the research leading to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.  Paretsky explains at the end of the book that the story was inspired by an article that she happened to see about an Austrian physicist named Marietta Blau, who did groundbreaking research in cosmic ray physics in the 1930s.   This woman, who was nominated for the Nobel prize several times by Erwin Shrödinger, was one of the women and Jews fired by the Institut für Radiumforshung in Vienna after the Anschluss.  She manged to leave Europe just before war broke out, when Albert Einstein finally succeeded in arranging a position for her at a high school in Mexico City.  So she survived, but her career as a front line researcher was over.

Paretsky was so haunted by this story that she wove it into her detective thriller by sending Warshawski to look for a missing young man, a computer genius who is the great grandson of an Austrian woman physicist whose career was ended by the Anschluss and the war.

Paretsky’s explanation of the background to her story struck a chord, because I have had the experience of being so impressed by something I read that I wanted to talk about it in my writing.  I’m not comparing myself to Sara Paretsky in any way, but I know exactly how she felt about the story she happened to come across.  In my case, it was the memoirs of a French aristocrat who lived in the eighteenth century.

This Frenchman, Louis-Joseph-Amour, Marquis de Bouillé, was a young officer at the time of the revolution.  He was one of the loyalist troops who were assigned to help king Louis and Marie Antoinette escape from Paris, but they were caught before they reached his station.  He fought against Napoleon, was involved in the diplomatic intrigues of the royalists, and lived for a while as an exile in England.  The amazing thing about his memoirs is that he wrote so naturally and honestly that the distant times and circumstances of his life become as accessible as the story of the guy next door. I tell part of his story in “Mystery Time”, in which a fictional character based on him appears as a past owner of a stolen antique watch with mysterious qualities.

Paretsky’s PI Warshawski has an appropriate circle of supporters, including an equally feisty old man who is her neighbor, two dogs, and a boyfriend who plays bass.  What stays with me to haunt me from Paretsky’s story is the bit about the bass player serenading Warshawski with a lullaby.  I periodically try, but fail, to imagine how that lullaby sounded.


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