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Critical Mass, Sara Paretsky, G P Putnam's Sons, 2013, 462 pp
Summary from Goodreads: 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.
This crime thriller was on my stack of reading for the last week in 2016, consisting of books I had meant to read during the year but hadn't gotten to. It is Ms Paretsky's 18th novel and I have now read them all. One more to go and I will be caught up before her next one comes out later in 2017. She is one of my top favorite mystery/crime novelists. Every book so far has been amazing for its genre.
V I Warshawski, fearless and crusading private investigator, once again finds "the crimes behind the crimes" as Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times puts it. In her hometown of Chicago she ferrets out corruption and destructive inequalities, taking down criminality and standing up for the forgotten people. If we had a few like her in every major American city, our country would be more like what our Founding Fathers hoped they were founding.
Critical Mass uncovers secrets and lies going back to the WWII arms race with its competition between Germany and the United States to develop the first atomic bomb.
Reading coincidence: Michael Chabon's Moonglow, read earlier in December, covers similar territory. In both books the traumas of Nazi concentration camps and the use of Jewish scientists to further that research are key plot elements.
The fast pace, multiple characters, extreme danger to V I's life, and her biting yet comedic take on all events are as present here as in all her books. I always make a list of characters as they appear, tedious near the beginning but eliminating the need to turn back the pages and remember who's who so I can enjoy the ever accelerating pace that invariably makes up the last 100 pages.
In Critical Mass (a physics term meaning the minimum amount of material, such as plutonium, necessary to maintain a nuclear chain reaction), Paretsky honors Jewish Austrian physicist Marietta Blau. She was a researcher whose scientific work deserved a Nobel Prize she never got because she was Jewish. Paretsky's fictional character Martina Saginor is based on Ms Blau.
Even more impressive, the story makes clear the destruction of so many lives due to secrets that were kept both by members of the researcher's family and by some sorry practices of government and corporations, hidden behind actions justified by national security.
No matter what your politics or your patriotic views, Critical Mass will challenge you to pay more attention and look more deeply into our current times. Also it is more fun than watching Twitter fights!
(Critical Mass is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)