Brush Back (V. I. Warshawski Series #17)

Brush Back (V. I. Warshawski Series #17)

by Sara Paretsky

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Chicago’s V. I. Warshawski confronts crooked politicians and buried family secrets in this gritty mystery from New York Times bestselling author Sara Paretsky.
No one would accuse V. I. Warshawski of backing down from a fight, but she’d happily avoid tangling with Chicago political bosses. Yet that’s what she ends up doing when she responds to a plea for help from an old high school flame, Frank Guzzo.
Frank’s mother Stella was convicted of killing his kid sister, but now that she’s out of prison, she’s looking for exoneration. Even though the Warshawskis and Stella never got along, V. I. agrees to make a few inquiries after she sees how hard life has been on Frank and her other childhood friends.
Only, that small favor leads her straight into the vipers’ nest of Illinois politics—and soon her main question isn’t about Stella’s case but whether or not she’ll make it out of this investigation alive...

Washington Post Best Mystery of 2015

Includes a Bonus Short Story!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451477156
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/07/2016
Series: V. I. Warshawski Series , #17
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 148,320
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.14(d)

About the Author

Sara Paretsky is the New York Times bestselling author of the renowned V.I. Warshawski novels. Her many awards include the Cartier Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Crime Writers' Association and the 2011 Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. She lives in Chicago.


Chicago, Illinois

Date of Birth:

June 8, 1947

Place of Birth:

Ames, Iowa


B.A., Political Science, University of Kansas; Ph.D. and M.B.A., University of Chicago

Read an Excerpt

I didn’t recognize him at first. He came into my office unannounced, a jowly man whose hairline had receded to a fringe of dark curls. Too much sun had baked his skin the color of brick, although maybe it had been too much beer, judging by those ill-named love handles poking over the sides of his jeans. The seams in the faded corduroy jacket strained when he moved his arms; he must not often dress for business.

“Hey, girl, you doing okay for yourself up here, aren’t you?”

I stared at him, astonished and annoyed by the familiarity.

“Tori Warshawski, don’t you know me? I guess Red U turned you into a snob after all.”
Tori. The only people who called me that had been my father and my cousin Boom-Boom, both of them dead a lot of years now. And Boom-Boom’s boyhood friends—who were also the only people who still thought the University of Chicago was a leftist hideout.
“It’s not Frank Guzzo, is it?” I finally said. When I’d known him thirty years and forty pounds ago, he’d had a full head of red-gold hair, but I could still see something of him around the eyes and mouth.
“All of him.” He patted his abdomen. “You look good, Tori, I’ll give you that. You didn’t turn into some yoga nut or a vegan or something?”
“Nope. I play a little basketball, but mostly I run the lakefront. You still playing baseball?”
“With this body? Slow-pitch sometimes with the geriatric league. But my boy, Frankie Junior, Tori, I got my fingers crossed, but I think he’s the real deal.”
“How old is he?” I asked, more out of politeness than interest: Frank always thought someone or something was going to be the real deal that made his fortune for him.
“He’s fifteen now, made varsity at Saint Eloy’s, even though he’s only a freshman. He’s got a real arm. Maybe he’ll be another Boom-Boom.”
Meaning, he could be the next person to make it out of the ’hood into some version of the American dream. There were so few of us who escaped South Chicago’s gravitational pull that the neighborhood could recite our names.
I’d managed, by dint of my mother’s wishes, and my scholarships to the University of Chicago. My cousin Boom-Boom had done it through sports. He’d had seven brilliant seasons with the Blackhawks until he injured his ankle too badly for the surgeons to glue him back in any shape to skate. And then he’d been murdered, shoved off a pier in the Port of Chicago, right under the screw of the Bertha Krupnik.
When Boom-Boom and Frank hung out together, Frank hoped he’d be a real deal, too, in baseball. We all did—he was the best shortstop in the city’s Catholic league. By the time I started law school, though, Frank was driving a truck for Bagby Haulage. I don’t know what happened; I’d lost touch with him by then.

Maybe he could have been a contender. He wasn’t the only kid in South Chicago with a spark of promise that flared up and died. They start to spread their wings and then they fall to earth. It’s hard to leave the world you know. Even if it’s a painful place at times, you grow up learning how to navigate it. The world north of Madison Street looks good on TV, but it has too many hidden traps, places where a homey can make a humiliating mistake.
Perhaps Frankie Junior would have the drive, the mentors and the talent to be another Boom-Boom. All I said was I hoped Frank was right, it would be great. “You stayed in South Chicago?” I added.
“We moved to the East Side. My wife—uh, Bet—uh,” he stumbled over the words, his face turning a richer shade of brick.
Frank had left me for Betty Pokorny when we were all in high school. Her father had owned Day & Night Bar & Grill. When the mills were running three shifts, no matter what time you got off or went on, you could get steak and eggs with a boilermaker.
When Betty started smirking at me in the high school hallway, I’d been heartbroken for a few weeks, but my dad told me that Frank wasn’t right for me, that I was looking for love in all the wrong places because Gabriella had died a few months earlier. He’d been right: it had been years since I’d thought about either Frank or Betty.
Looking at Frank this morning, in his ill-fitting jacket and uneasy fidgeting, he seemed vulnerable and needy. Let him imagine that hearing about Betty could cause me a pang or two.
“How are Betty’s folks?” I asked.
“Her ma passed a few years back, but her dad is still going strong, even without the bar—you know they had to shut that down?”
“Someone told me,” I said. Day & Night had followed the mills into extinction, but by then I was so far removed from the neighborhood that I hadn’t even felt Schadenfreude, only a vague pity for Frank.
“Her dad, he keeps busy, he’s handy with tools, builds stuff, keeps the house from falling over. I guess you don’t know we moved in with him when, well, you know.”
When they got married, I guessed. Or maybe when Stella went to prison. “What did you do about your place on Buffalo?”
“Ma kept it. My dad’s insurance or something let her make the payments while she was in Logan. I looked in on it once a week, made sure nothing was leaking or burning, kept the rats and the gangbangers from moving in. Ma says she owns it clear and free now.”
“She’s out?” I blurted.
“Yeah. Two months ago.” His heavy shoulders sagged, further stressing the shoulders in the jacket.
Annie Guzzo had been three years younger than me and I was finishing my junior year of college when she died. I counted in my head. I guess it had been twenty-five years.
South Chicago was a neighborhood where violence was routine, ordinary. Stella Guzzo had grown up in a hardscrabble house herself and shouting and hitting were her main modes of functioning. We all knew she hit her daughter, but what turned people’s stomachs was that Stella had beaten Annie to death and then walked up to St. Eloy’s to play bingo. Not even my aunt Marie, Stella’s chief crony, stood up for her.
“I never made those marks on my girl,” Stella protested at the trial. “They’re lying about me, making me look bad because I was trying to get Annie to see the facts of life. She was getting those big ideas, way above herself. She didn’t think she needed to vacuum or do the laundry because she was going to school, but she needed to remember she was part of a family. Everyone has to carry their weight in a family. She’s got a brother, he’s the one with a future and he needs looking after, I can’t do it all on my own, especially not with their father dead. But Annie was fine when I left the house.”
Father Gielczowski, the priest at St. Eloy’s, had testified for Stella: she was a good woman, a dedicated mother. She didn’t spare the rod, but that was what made her a good mother; she didn’t tolerate the rudeness a lot of modern women let their children get away with.
Priests usually play well with Chicago juries, but not this time. Stella was built on massive lines, not fat, but big, like the figurehead of a Viking ship. Frank took after her, but Annie was small, like their father. The state’s attorney showed pictures of Annie’s battered face, and the family photos where she looked like a dark little elf next to her mother’s broad-shouldered five-ten.
Instead of manslaughter, the state went for second-degree homicide, and got it. I didn’t remember the trial clearly, but I don’t think the jury deliberated longer than half a day. Stella drew the full two dimes, with a little extra thrown in to punish her for her belligerent attitude in court.
I never would be a Stella fan, but the thought of her alone in a decrepit South Chicago bungalow was disturbing. “Is she there by herself?” I asked Frank. “It’s hard dealing with the outside world when you’ve been away from it so long. Besides that, South Chicago is a war zone these days, between the Kings, and the Insane Latin Dragons and about five other big gangs.”
He fiddled with a chrome paperweight on my desk. “I told Ma it wasn’t safe, but where else was she going to go? Betty didn’t want her living with us. It didn’t seem right, turning my own mother away after all she’s been through, but, you know, she’s not the easiest person to have around. Ma said she knew when she wasn’t wanted. Besides, she insisted on returning to the old place. It’s hers, she says, it’s what she knows.
“She doesn’t care that the neighborhood’s shot to heck. Or she cares but all her old pals, they’ve moved further south, or they’re in assisted living. Either way, she doesn’t want to be near them. Thinks they’ll always be talking about her behind her back.”
Frank dropped the paperweight. It bounced onto the floor where it dented one of the boards. We watched it roll under my worktable.
“That isn’t why you came up here today, is it, Frank?” I asked. “You’re not imagining I’ll baby-sit Stella, I hope.”
He picked up a stapler and started opening it and snapping it shut. Staples began falling onto the desktop and floor. I took it from him and set it down, out of his reach.
“What is it, Frank?”
He walked to the door, not trying to leave, just trying to pull words together. He walked around in a circle and came back.
“Tori, don’t get mad, but Ma thinks—Ma says—she thinks—she says—”
I waited while he fumbled for words.
“Ma is sure she was framed.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me.”
“You know she was?” His face lightened.
“No, Frank. But I believe she wants to rewrite the story of her life. She always set herself up as the most moral, pious woman in South Chicago, then she does time, can’t face the women she used to look down on. Of course she has to change the past so she’s the martyr, not the villain.”
He pounded his thighs in frustration. “She could have been framed, it could have happened. I never believed she would have hit Annie hard enough to hurt her.”
“I am not going to spend time and energy trying to prove your mother’s innocence.” My mouth set in a tight line.
“Did I ask you to do that? Did I? That isn’t what I want.” He sucked in a deep breath. “She can’t afford a lawyer, a real lawyer, I mean, not a public defender, and—”
“And you thought of me?” I was so angry I jumped to my feet. “I don’t know what the gossip about me is in South Chicago, but I did not become Bill Gates when I moved away. And even if I did, why would I help your mother? She always thought Gabriella was some kind of whore, that she cast a spell over your dad and then stole Annie. Stella liked to say I was a bad apple falling close to a rotten tree, or words to that effect.”
“I—I know she said all that stuff. I’m not asking you to be her lawyer. But you could ask questions, you’re a detective, and people know you, they’d trust you the way they wouldn’t trust a cop.”
By now his face was so scarlet that I feared he’d have a stroke on the spot.
“Even if I wanted to do this, which I don’t, I don’t know the neighborhood anymore. I’ve been away as long as Stella has. Longer.”
“You were just back there,” he objected. “I heard about it at Sliga’s, that you’d been to the high school and everything.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. South Chicago and the East Side are like a small town. You sneeze on Ninetieth Street, they whip out a handkerchief on Escanaba Avenue.
Over the weekend, I’d taken Bernadine Fouchard, Boom-Boom’s goddaughter, on a tour of my cousin’s old haunts. I showed her the place near Dead Stick Pond where he practiced skating in the winter, and where I’d help him hunt for the puck when it went into the nearby marsh grasses. We’d gone to the breakwater in Calumet Harbor where Boom-Boom and I used to dare the freighters by jumping in to swim. I’d taken her to the public high school where I played on the state champion basketball team, picked up tacos at Estella’s on Commercial Avenue. We hadn’t gone to Sliga’s bar, but probably someone at the high school mentioned it over a boilermaker.
“I went as a tourist, Frank. I can’t help your mother.”
He came over to me, gripping my arms. “Tori, please. She went to, well, to a lawyer, who told her there wasn’t any evidence.”
I pulled away. “Of course there isn’t. If she’d had any evidence when Annie died, she could have used it at her trial.”
“Tori, come on, you know what it’s like, you go to court, it’s all confusing, she never pled guilty but the lawyer, he was inexperienced, he didn’t know how to run the case.”
Frank was right: a trial is bewildering for inexperienced defendants. I didn’t like Stella, but I could imagine how unbalanced she must have felt. She’d never been to court, not even to fight a traffic ticket. She wouldn’t have known the first thing about how evidence is presented, how everything you say on the stand, or before you ever get to trial, is taken apart and put together again in a way you’d never recognize.
“Even so, I am not wasting time and energy on problems Stella brought on herself.”
“Can’t you let go of that old grudge? Ma’s had a hard life. Dad died in the mill, she had to fight the company for his workers’ comp, then Annie died—”
“Frank, listen to yourself. She murdered Annie. And she had to fight the company for the comp claim because she started spreading rumors that your father committed suicide. Don’t you remember what Stella did at Gabriella’s funeral? She marched in on the middle of the service and dragged Annie out, yelling that Gabriella was a whore. I do not feel sorry for your mother. I will never feel sorry for your mother.”
Frank grabbed my hands. “Tori, that’s why I thought—hoped—don’t you remember, that was the night—Annie was that upset, I never saw her like that, when Ma dragged her home—if someone told me Ma or Annie, one would kill the other, I would have thought Annie for sure, after your ma’s funeral. But I—don’t you remember?”
My mother’s funeral was a blur in my mind. My father and I, uncomfortable in our dress-up clothes. The pallbearers—my uncle Bernie; Bobby Mallory, my dad’s closest friend on the force; other cops, all in their dress uniforms; a police chaplain, since my unreligious mother hadn’t known a rabbi. Gabriella had been a wisp by the time she died; her coffin couldn’t have taken six big men to lift it.
Mr. Fortieri, my mother’s vocal coach, fought back tears, twisting a silk handkerchief over and over, but Eileen Mallory wept openly. I could feel the tightness again in my throat—I had vowed I wouldn’t cry, not in front of my aunt Marie. Annie Guzzo’s sobs had angered me. What right had she to cry for Gabriella?
And then Stella roared in, beside herself. Mouth flecked white with spit, or was that a detail I was adding? At home that night I’d sat alone in the dark in my attic room, staring at the street, unable to move, leaving my dad to deal with his drunk sister Elena and the stream of neighbors, of cops, of my mother’s piano and voice students. And then—
Frank had appeared at the top of the steep flight of stairs, come to say how sorry he was, for my loss, for his mother’s behavior. In the dark, sick with loss, tired of the adult world on the ground floor, I’d found a comfort in his embrace. Our teenage fumblings with clothes and bodies, neither of us knowing what we were doing, somehow that got me through the first hard weeks of Gabriella’s death.
I squeezed Frank’s fingers and gently removed my hands. “I remember. You were very kind.”
“So will you do this, Tori? Will you go back to South Chicago and ask some questions? See if there’s something that didn’t come out at the trial?”
Past the naked, unbearable pleading in his face, I could see him as he’d been at seventeen, athletically slender, red-gold curls covering his forehead. I’d brushed them out of his eyes and seen the lump and bruise on his forehead. I got it sliding into second, he’d said quickly, scarlet with shame, pushing my hand away.
My mouth twisted. “One free hour, Frank. I’ll ask questions for sixty minutes. After that—you’ll have to pay like any other client.”

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Brush Back 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fast pace. Great characters. Will read more by this author.
Virginiaw More than 1 year ago
This was my favorite book in this series in a while. It had all my favorite characters from all of this series. I look forward to reading the next in this series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found Brush Back to be very enjoyable. The writing style and plot-line are more reminiscent of Paretsky's earlier Warshawsky novels, for which I am thankful. I am also thankful that Paretsy mostly refrained from inserting talking points from the liberal agenda, which tend to distract more conservative readers from the actual story. This one makes me hopeful again for future V I Warshawsky novels. Stephanie Clanahan
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literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
JennMcLean More than 1 year ago
"Brush Back" By Sara Paretsky (will be published July 28, 2015) is the latest book in the V.I. Warshawski series that started back in 1982. I was a loyal fan of Ms. Paretsky, reading every V.I. Warshawski book she wrote, right up until "Tunnel Vision". It was written in 1994, then Sara Paretsky stopped writing V.I. Warshawski mysteries for five long years. By then I had moved on to other authors and didn't picked up the series again, until now. I must admit, I was a bit surprised to find that the main character hadn't really changed in twenty years. V.I. aged, but I see very few other changes in her. She's now fifty but she is still a dogged fighter for the truth and in doing so, also still puts herself in serious peril. This is Paretsky's eighteenth Warshawski mystery and I found myself begging the question, "Why does this character continue to put herself and others in such danger?". "Brush Back" has V.I. going back to her old Chicago neighborhood to try and help an old flame. Frank Guzzo wants V.I. to investigate and help him prove his mother did not beat his little sister Annie to death twenty-five years ago. Stella Guzzo was just released from prison after doing her time for the murder of her daughter but she claims she didn't kill young Annie. Stella always hated the Warshawskis and it seems time has only made that hate stronger. She is now accusing V.I.'s cousin Boom Boom, the famous hockey player, of killing Annie all those years ago. The problem is Boom Boom can't be questioned as he died years after Annie's murder. V.I. steps in a real mess by agreeing to look into Annie's death. Her main goal is to clear her dead cousin's good name, he's a hero in Chicago and it grates on V.I. that anyone would sully his reputation now that he's dead. The problem with looking into this very messy old case is the political powers that be don't want V.I. investigating. The result of V.I.'s relentless digging is her loved ones are threatened, her life is in danger and people start disappearing and dying. I have to rate this book a three out of five and I'm disappointed that I have to give it a low rating. Paretsky's writing is still tight and every detail connects beautifully. Although this mystery was tedious and filled with details, I have to give props to Paretsky for keeping everything straight and connecting all the dots creatively. My biggest problem with this book was the one question that kept popping into my head over and over as I moved through the story. Why hasn't the character gained any maturity? If your life and the life of the ones you love were seriously threatened, wouldn't you let and old murder that was already adjudicated go when all you're fighting is just to clear the name of a dead guy? Aren't the living more important? V.I. had no real reason to keep digging into this case especially since for three quarters of the book she was sure Stella had indeed killed her daughter just as the courts found twenty-five years ago. Also, the other characters who have been with V.I. since the beginning of the series haven't changed a whit either. Her best friend and doctor still admonishes V.I. every time she blackens an eye or gets a splinter. There is a similar situation with Mr. Contraras who is now ninety. When does a character act his age? Even the dogs she had back then are still alive. Fans of the V.I. Warshawski series will still probably like this book. As I said above, it was actually beautifully rendered. Since I'm com
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Dont be inappropriate
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Hi this is sorry...I will tell you the story just text me back
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Hey iam a girl 14 whont to chat ps iam friends with lola, mia, nate and iam dating zane so we can all chat on books romans , between the world and me , and gray cant whayt to her from you :) ps we always chat at 7:00 at night :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hay Sara is my name!!!!!!!!;)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have school today but I'm going to bring my NOOK so hopefully I will post on my clans))) She wakes up and streches then walks over to Raven and says "I love you, I will see you soon"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Oh yeah u tell that beach off
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ur ugly