In her essay for The New York Times series, Writers on Writing, Sara Paretsky mentions a letter from a furious reader demanding to know why her books were “infested” with political issues when all she wanted was to be entertained. Her response: “When you’re writing about law, justice and society, you are either challenging or supporting the status quo. In Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, he’s bristling with anger over street crime and is furious with what he sees as American judicial leniency. No one called this a political novel, but I don’t know how much more political a writer can be.”
She points out that in Europe her books have always been seen as political because they deal with questions of social justice. In fact, British author and critic Joan Smith commented positively on the overt political content of Paretsky’s work in a review of her third novel, Killing Orders, saying it “restores politics to its rightful place in the mainstream private eye novel, and in so doing revitalises the tradition”.
In the U.S., however, Blacklist, written in the aftermath of 9/11, was the only one of her novels seen as political by readers as well as critics — possibly because part of the subtext was a specific law, the Patriot Act, and the greatly enhanced powers it gives the police. The book split American fans down the middle, usually on political grounds. “Reviewers who were furious with me for writing Blacklist praised me for returning to a straight-forward crime novel in the next book,” she says. “However, in my opinion, Fire Sale was even more political than Blacklist because it looked at the enormous power that big box retailers have over the survival of entire communities.”