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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran




Back of the Book Blurb:
Claire DeWitt is not your average private investigator. She has brilliant deductive skills and is an ace at discovering evidence. But Claire also uses her dreams, omens, and mind-expanding herbs to help her solve mysteries, and relies on D├ętection — the only book published by the late, great, and mysterious French detective Jacques Silette.
The tattooed, pot-smoking Claire has just arrived in post-Katrina New Orleans, the city she’s avoided since her mentor, Silette’s student Constance Darling, was murdered there. Claire is investigating the disappearance of Vic Willing, a prosecutor known for winning convictions in a homicide- plagued city. Has an angry criminal enacted revenge on Vic? Or did he use the storm as a means to disappear? Claire follows the clues, finding old friends and making new enemies — foremost among them Andray Fairview, a young gang member who just might hold the key to the mystery.
Littered with memories of Claire’s years as a girl detective in 1980s Brooklyn, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a knockout start to a bracingly original new series.

Review:  This story is a starkly original and unique twist on the private detective novel.  Claire is every bit the hard-boiled PI, professional, brutally honest, and like a bloodhound on the scent.  When the story begins Claire has accepted her first case since recovering from a breakdown, and this case brings her back to New Orleans about a year after Hurricane Katrina.   She is hired by the hapless nephew of a wealthy, missing lawyer named Vic Willing (according to Jacques Silette's book Detection, we all choose our roles in life, so his name is doubly appropriate).

There are frequent quotes from the Detection book, and they are obtuse and fortune-cookie like, in that they seem to be wise but really say nothing, such as "The clue that can be named is not the eternal clue" and "Not one detective in a thousand will hear my words, and of those, not one in one hundred will understand.  It is for them who I write."  Much of the book Detection is impossible to understand, but it also makes readers like Claire want to be that rare one who "gets it", to be part of an exclusive club of enigmatic WTFery.  And Claire has been obsessed with the book since she was a teenager.  Of all the drugs she uses and abuses, the book Detection is Claire's most dangerous addiction because it won't allow her to live her own life.  She sees signs everywhere that seem to lead her back to the book, and the reader is torn between believing that Claire's life is one of mystical portents and omens, or just really messed up from her desperation, unhappiness and heavy drug use.

Claire is very hard to like, but easy to feel compassion for.  She seems to be lost and unhappy, friendless and disconnected to others.  Reading this book is like peeling petals off a rose - every layer removed changes the appearance of the rose and gives a better view of what is at the core.  And so it is with Claire, as her investigation leads her to some of the damaged, broken, unwanted teenagers living on the streets of New Orleans.  Claire knows them because she is one herself.  As one character says, she was born sad.

I had trouble finishing the book, because it was pretty depressing.  In spite of a clear, narrative voice and a solid mystery, Claire's world was not one I wanted to spend time in.  The strong sense of place was not helping, because the author would constantly write about how horribly corrupt, dangerous, and hopeless New Orleans was, both from Katrina's aftermath and its own infrastructure and politics.  I'm glad I read it through to the end, but the mystery of Claire's path in life, and her connection to Detection, did not leave me curious enough to wade through the gritty and depressing world of Claire DeWitt again.



For more information about Sara Gran and her writing, visit her website at http://www.saragran.com/Sara_Gran/Sara_Gran.html.

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