It is a conceit of many mystery writers that they are not writing mysteries but novels. Paretsky puts the label on the cover: "a V.I. Warshawski novel." And in this instance she's right: The case at I he core of her new book is so difficult to follow, and intrinsically dull, that readers must be engaged by merits beyond (or beneath) a traditional whodunit. Fortunately, Paretsky—and her cranky but commendable female detective, Warshawski—has plenty else to offer.
Edging toward 40, with the housekeeping habits of a prepubescent and a slobbering, pregnant hound as her most significant other, "Vic" Warshawski is understandably compassionate toward her ancient and unpleasant, dog-loving neighbor, Mrs. Frizell. When Mrs. Frizell takes a tumble and ends up in a hospital, Vic vows to care for the old woman's pets. Except that a yuppie couple down the street get there first, dooming the doggies and finagling their way into control of Frizell's meager estate.
If the plot stayed closer to this dastardly deed, it would go down easier. But when another crotchety denizen—a pal of Vic's nosey neighbor, Mr. Contreras—turns up dead near a local engine plant, Vic goes noisily off in all sorts of industrial espionage directions. She breaks into Frizell's desk, invades the shady factory and takes on the even more formidable task of confronting her ex-husband, the pompous lawyer Dick Yarborough. Along the way, Warshawski ends up on the outs with her best pal, Lotty.
She also picks up a beau, a black cop who goes along for the ride for the same reason as the rest of us: "I just love to watch you get on other people's nerves." (Delacorte, $20)