Critical Mass

In Sara Paretsky's Critical Mass, the 16th V.I. Warshawski novel, the private investigator's closest friend, Lotty Herschel, asks her to find Judy, the daughter of an acquaintance from her Viennese childhood who's left a terrified message saying someone was going to kill her. When Vic investigates, she finds a dead drug addict in a cornfield, but no sign of Judy. Then Judy's son, Martin, a lonely child with a passion for science, also disappears, drawing Vic into a sad, ugly saga involving old family secrets dating back to World War II--and their repercussions in the present.

Paretsky successfully weaves flashbacks into a complex tale touching on the plight of Jews under Nazi rule, the lingering effects of war wounds, the history of the atomic bomb and corporate greed and arrogance, with a brilliant female physicist at the center of the mystery. (The author's note indicates this character was inspired by the real-life Austrian physicist Marietta Blau, who did not receive recognition for her work). Judy's grandmother, Martina Saginor, is a haunting figure, a woman more in love with science than with her own child and yet sympathetic, doing groundbreaking work in a male-dominated field at an atrocious time in world history. Paretsky includes just enough physics to make readers feel smarter without bogging down the narrative. She writes that Martina doesn't want to describe the stars; she wants to be "inside the light." Readers don't have to understand all the physics to get inside this riveting story. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, crime-fiction editor, The Edit Ninja

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