A traumatised Iraq War veteran kills an artist outside a club and then apparently tries to kill himself. Witnesses describe their mutual accusations: she is taunting him; he is spying on her. His family hires VI Warshawski to prove his innocence. She, of course, is only interested in what really happened.
In a Chicago winter VI, now 50, has the club and its live art performances to worry about, as well as her wannabe sidekick, cousin Petra. The club puts pressure on its staff, including Petra, to be "nice" to certain customers. She discovers that the young people are bound together in a maelstrom of grief and barely suppressed violence by a shared contagion - the war and occupation of Iraq.
To be working class in the belly of capitalism is to be battered on all sides by underemployment, low wages and poor life chances. Young people join the army for education and healthcare for their families. War has always been a cash machine for the companies that fulfil contracts for the military, but Iraq was the first great war of neoliberalism. It was to have been the fulcrum of the Project for the New American Century and to remodel power in the Middle East as the centre of profitably extractable oil.
Not only did the occupation privatise the Iraqi state's assets but great chunks of the occupation were hived off to private contractors such as Blackwater (or Xe, as it has recently been renamed). Politicians may care little about the lives of their soldiers but they do care about a war's unpopularity and how much those soldiers cost to train. There are no such considerations for contractors, and VI uncovers why a soldier's frustrated outburst is the key to unlock the million-dollar secrets that a corporation with a military contract might kill to protect.
This is a novel of resistance, despite many of the central characters being dead or irreparably disabled. It is also a symptom of how deep the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reach into US society. It is in the nature of left wing detective stories that while they illuminate their characters' world, the heroine stands apart to some extent in order to detect.
So when VI comes up against a corporation nearly as powerful as a state, it is the head of another corporation that she turns to for help. The other power in society may not seem to be much in evidence - the one that occupied state capitols and faced down the Robocops in Seattle. But the friends and neighbours who rescue each other are a microcosm, like the germ of a revolution in a strike. I hope VI lives to see it.