V.I. Warshawski

V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s tough talking Chicago female detective/lawyer, had been featured in a series of successful mystery novels when she was portrayed by Kathleen Turner in an ill-fated, ill-reviewed Hollywood motion picture. But though the movie bombed, it may’ve succeeded in boosting the character’s profile, because shortly thereafter BBC Radio did some multi-episode adaptations of Paretsky’s novels. Two — Deadlock and Killing Orders — featured Turner again (despite the movie’s bad reviews, most felt Turner herself was well cast in the role) with a British cast (adopting American accents) and another — Bitter Medicine — has Sharon Gless taking over the title role (though with the same supporting cast and bluesy theme music indicating the BBC saw it as part of the same series). A fourth was, I gather, just a dramatic reading by yet another actress.

The full cast productions are decent, though uneven, with some broad supporting characters (as performed and written) and though the liberal/political undercurrents are actually kind of refreshing in a detective genre that’s usually more A-political or even conservative (the stories make points about religion, medicine, abortion, feminism, etc.) it can seem a bit stridently over-the-top — pedagogical pronouncements rather than stemming from natural conversations.

The first I heard was KILLING ORDERS (6 eps) as Warshawksi investigates when an aunt she hates is, nonetheless, implicated in a counterfeit stock crime, which leads to powers in the Catholic Church and attempts on Warshawksi’s life. Kathleen Turner is good, and the serial decent enough — though a bit uneven, whether as a fault of the novel itself or an occasionally clumsy attempt to turn it into six half hour episodes: emotions can ping pong around in a given scene, awkward expository dialogue is crammed in, even the basic plot can be a bit confusing (dealing as it does with a mixture of corporate crime and mob hits). Still, holds your interest, and with the largely British cast (other than Turner) doing credible American accents. Turner does the voiceover narration in a kind of quirky, breathless way — almost as though muttering to herself under her breath more than the “narrator voice” way such pieces are usually read/played by actors — for an interesting effect. DEADLOCK involved her investigating an ex-hockey player cousin’s mysterious death while he was working on a loading dock, leading her to uncover maritime malfeasance.

BITTER MEDICINE (6 eps) involves death and corruption at a ritzy hospital, and has some similar problems of a tendency for characters to erupt emotionally with little provocation (particularly her love/hate relationship with a blustering cop) but the plot maybe seems a little smoother developed. Sharon Gless is certainly good and seems comfortable with the audio format. But though I can’t put my finger on why, she’s maybe not quite as compelling as Turner was in the role.

Admittedly, my mixed feeling toward all three serials may stem from the source books (few of which have I yet read). Like a lot of detective novel heroes, there’s nothing here that really makes V.I. — or her cases — stand out from any other hero/heroine.

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