She is a gumshoe for modern times—a tart-tongued but tender P.I. with great legs, a sinkful of dirty dishes and a taste for Johnnie Walker Black Label. Capable of Houdini-like escapes from death. Chicago detective V.I. Warshawski never pays her bills before the third warning; she sniffs her gym clothes before her daily run, and some of her best thinking is done while she's working her way through a peanut butler sandwich. She has a thriving libido, but won't bed a new man without protection.

The creation of Chicago-based Sara Paretsky—who has a Ph.D. in history—Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, 37, has attained a kind of cult status. Her novel-length adventures arc published in 14 countries, and even readers who never took to Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett are falling for the bold Vic—proving that hard-boiled detective fiction is no longer the exclusive province of the testosterone set. Her latest adventure, Burn Marks, scrambled onto the New York Times best-seller list and has gathered extensive critical praise. "The story is as suave as any Marlowe ever encountered," noted the L.A. Times critic. "V.I. is wonderful company."

With her delicate features and luminous slate-blue eyes, Paretsky, 42, looks too fragile to be the creator of a postmodern private dick. Beneath that Dresden china exterior, however, is an ardent feminist with a magnum intellect and the guts to go where other doctorates fear to tread. While researching Deadlock, her second novel, Paretsky braved the cavernous depths of an engine room on a Great Lakes freighter; for Burn Marks, she fought back nausea on the 36th floor of an unfinished high-rise and hung out in the Cook County morgue. "Sara is very tough," says husband S. Courtenay Wright, a physics professor at the University of Chicago. "She won't give up, and she becomes attached to a cause."

For the last 11 years, Paretsky's mission has been to stage-direct a character "whom other women can look at and identify with," she says. Her plot lines about white-collar graft and corruption are often inspired by the Wall Street Journal, and while she's stewing over the complexities of character and motivation, she "walks around and eats whatever's in the house"—Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, in particular. "My process of writing involves a lot of screaming and yelling and fear that I will never write another line," she says. "So Courtenay is kind of the keeper of the madwoman."

A widowed father of three who accepted Paretsky's proposal in 1976, Wright, 66, has been a believer since the beginning. He is the only person who dares to criticize her work in progress. "I just pour champagne on the troubled page," he says. "Sara has great self-doubts, but any criticism is immediately regarded as inflicting serious bodily harm on her; she will attack me with a hatchet when I want to change a comma."

Although Paretsky was a poet and prolific short-story writer growing up in Lawrence, Kans. (where her mother is a children's librarian and her father a retired college professor), she chose to major in political science when she entered the University of Kansas in 1964. After finishing an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago—where she met Courtenay—she tried a hitch in middle management at an insurance firm, CNA Financial Corp., but felt restless and thoroughly miscast. It was Courtenay who encouraged her to finish her Ph.D. in history. Long addicted to detective fiction, she ripped through 24 mysteries in the month before her Ph.D. orals and found the pulp more powerful than the abstruse stuff she needed to know for her doctorate. "I couldn't keep my mind focused," she remembers. "It took me a while to realize I was in the wrong field."

On New Year's Day, 1979, Paretsky put her degree on the shelf and resolved to write a novel by the end of the year "or stop fantasizing about it." Seventy pages into her first V.I. Warshawski tale, she signed up for a Northwestern University course in writing detective fiction, taught by award-winning author Stuart Kaminsky. Impressed by Paretsky's work, Kaminsky encouraged her to finish the manuscript and sent it to his own agent. In 1982 Indemnity Only was published by Dial Press to good reviews.

Today, with six novels behind her, Paretsky is pleased that V.I. has attracted a loyal audience. Men have told her they wish Vic were real—so they could marry her—and women say they see her as a feminist heroine. "I've had letters from women who say, 'I was in the middle of a very difficult situation and V.I. really helped me figure out how to take charge of my own life,' " says Paretsky. "That's pretty powerful stuff—and the best reward you can imagine for your work."

—Michelle Green, Barbara Kleban Mills in Chicago