GHOST COUNTRY. By Sara Paretsky. 386pp. Hamish Hamilton. Pounds 15.99. - 0 241 13263 0.
V. I. Warshawski is in temporary retirement, and her creator has taken a break from crime fiction to offer us an extraordinary fantasy of female empowerment. Just as Warshawski represented a feminist challenge to the male-dominated world of the Chadleresque private eye, so Ghost Country offers a fable to rival the myths in which strong men are threatened with destruction by gorgons, sirens, mermaids, enchantresses - or Eve. The novel is told from the point of view of several different characters who are all suffering from the tyranny necessary to patriarchy. Luisa Moncrieff is an alcoholic diva who has lost her voice; Mara Stonds, a confused young woman in search of a mother and a reason to like herself; her half-sister Harriet, a chilly collaborating lawyer; and Doctor Hector Tammuz, a young psychotherapist bullied by his superiors. They are brought together when a homeless woman announces that the Virgin Mary is weeping tears of blood through a crack in a hotel wall. Accepting the constraints of religion, Madeleine has no option but to turn her anger against herself, but the rest refuse to give in. Threatened, bullied, led to believe they are wicked or disgusting, they are saved by a women who appears to be a reincarnation of Inanna, the most powerful of the ancient Sumerian goddesses.
Written with all the pace and hot rage of the best of the Warshawski novels, Ghost Country covers some of the same ground as Paula Sharp's recent novel Crows Over a Wheatfield. Both ask similar questions about a society in which male violence and selfishness are accepted but any attempt by a woman to live in a way that makes men uncomfortable has to be punished or seen as a sign of illness. But Paretsky's fairy-tale loses some of the impact it might have had if she had written it as a straight novel - or even a detective story -and not resorted to miracles and mysteries.