Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky: A review

Critical Mass (The V.I. Warshawski Series)Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I've long been an admirer of the writing of Sara Paretsky. As such, I have faithfully followed her V.I. Warshawski series over the years. Having now finished with Critical Mass, I can say that I have read them all.

They are all workmanlike and suspenseful mysteries and some are downright enthralling page-turners, but I have to admit that I was less than enthralled with this latest one. While I really like V.I. and I'll always care about her, I found it hard to care very much about the other characters in this book.

The story here is that V.I.'s friend Lotty hires her to look for a drug-addicted patient of hers who had called her in a panic to ask for help and then disappeared. The detective tracks her to a derelict drug house in a rural town outside of Chicago. She finds the place in shambles and the body of one dead dog with another injured and extremely dehydrated. She follows a trail into a cornfield where she discovers the corpse of a man that had been picked over and mutilated by crows. But the woman whom she is seeking is no longer there, if she ever was.  

Trying to discover more about the woman and get an idea of where she might be brings V.I., quite unexpectedly, into the history of physics and invention, dating to before World War II. The woman's family history is linked to Dr. Lotty Herschel's all the way back to the Vienna of seventy years ago. Both families were touched by the Holocaust, indeed they were decimated by it. Lotty and the mother of the missing woman had been children together at the time and were sent to England to escape the war.

The grandmother of the missing woman was a physicist with a connection to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who escaped from Vienna with his family and ended up in the United States. The grandmother, Martina, was caught in the war and was sent to be a slave laborer for the Nazis. She later disappeared from all records and was presumed dead.

Martina had been a gifted physicist and inventor and she held the American patent for a machine that was later instrumental in developing modern computer systems. This, it turns out, is significant in the disappearance of her drug-addicted granddaughter in Chicago, as well as the granddaughter's twenty-something son who, it seems, has inherited his great-grandmother's love of and abilities with math and physics.

But what made these two disappear? Who are they hiding from, if indeed they are hiding? And what does it all have to do with the Holocaust and with Vienna of the 1930s and 1940s?

I had a hard time keeping track of all these people and their relations, as the action switched back and forth in time. Perhaps that was because there just didn't seem to be a strong central figure here. I think that role might have been meant for Martina and/or her great-grandson and namesake, Martin, but their plights just didn't engage me, at least not in any meaningful way.

Obviously, we are supposed to be moved by the Holocaust connection, but perhaps I am jaded (although I do fervently hope not) by the repetition of this particular theme in several of these books. V.I.'s friends, Lotty and Max, are both connected to the Holocaust and they work to succor Holocaust survivors and their descendants. But the continual repetition of the theme has only served to immunize me a bit from its effect.

In the end, of course, all the loose ends are tied up, V.I. gets her man, solves the case, and justice is served. But the whole thing just left me curiously unsatisfied.

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  1. I understand your reactions here. The family trees were hard to follow. Still, I liked the historical threads and the look into the current drug scene in the mid west.

    1. I think your technique of listing all the characters probably would have helped me here, but, overall, the story somehow just didn't particularly move me. However, no one could accuse Paretsky of failing to do her research and remaining true to historical facts.


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