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Author leaves Chicago for violent Kansas in new novel

'Bleeding Kansas' (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 448 pages, $25.95), by Sara Paretsky

The city of Chicago plays such an integral role in Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski mysteries that it's hard to imagine her setting a novel anywhere else.

But Paretsky goes home in 'Bleeding Kansas' with such a strong and stark portrayal of the Heartland that it becomes clear one of her true gifts as a writer is her ability to use her setting as a character.

Paretsky grew up in a rural home near Lawrence, where her father taught at the University of Kansas.

The Kaw Valley in her new novel is a harsh and unforgiving place with neighbors divided by war and religion. One of the climactic scenes has such a brutal portrayal of the emotional damage inflicted by religious intolerance that it's hard to read.

The rest of the book is only slightly easier.

It focuses on the Grelliers, a farming family, whose lives are upturned when a lesbian moves in next door and persuades matriarch Susan Grellier to take part in a Wiccan ceremony and then join the anti-war movement. Her son shows his own protest by enlisting and is quickly killed in Iraq.

Susan descends into depression, dragging the rest of the family with her. Before long, her husband is considering an affair and her daughter has taken up with the son of religious extremists.

Paretsky's mysteries often build on historical wrongs, such as McCarthy-era blacklisting and the Holocaust, and she's tackled social issues such as homelessness and spousal abuse. But private investigator V.I. Warshawski, while stubborn and sometimes reckless, is essentially a spunky and warmhearted person the good guys can count on to get their back.

There's really no similarly likable character in 'Bleeding Kansas.' The closest is Susan Grellier's daughter, Lara, but she shows the kind of immaturity and impetuosity that makes reading about adolescence even less fun than experiencing it.

Other characters who are essentially sympathetic, such as Lara's father, become bogged down in emotional pain that Paretsky describes almost too skillfully. Where her mysteries may have offered escape from reality, this novel is more likely to evoke readers' own personal tragedies.

'Bleeding Kansas' is an important book in terms of Paretsky's ability to stretch herself as a writer. It remains to be seen whether longtime fans are willing to push themselves - and their emotions - as much.