I can’t remember how I came across Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. I think maybe I saw it on one of those “Recommended Reading” lists from someone like Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott, which makes sense because stylistically this novel, the first in a series (hopefully a long one), sits alongside works by those authors (and I’d include Laura Lippman’s books, both her Tess Monaghan series and her stand-alone works, here as well). Gran definitely has the grit of Flynn and Abbott, the page-turning story skills and character development of all three.
Claire DeWitt is a private investigator. For her, being a PI isn’t a job, but a calling, or even a burden. At the age of twelve, she and her two best friends, Kelly and Tracie, find a book called Détection in the crumbling Brooklyn mansion where Claire lives with her parents. Détection is a manual of sorts, written by a French PI names Jacques Silette. Silette’s work is less a “how to” than an existential philosopher’s text for the PI. For example:
“There are moments in life that are quicksand,” Silette wrote. “A gun goes off. A levee breaks. A girl goes missing. These moments of time are different from the others. Quicksand is a dangerous place to be. We will drown there if we can’t get out. But it tricks us. It tricks us into confusing us with safety. At first, it may seem like a solid place to stay. But slowly we’re sinking. You will never move forward. Never move back. In quicksand you will slowly sink until you drown. The deeper you let yourself sink, the harder it is to claw yourself out.”
As Claire explains it, Silette has a small, cult-like following, primarily because Détection is a book that finds its readers, not so much the other way around.
In the present day, Claire DeWitt is 35, and she has just returned to New Orleans, having left the city many years before when her mentor, Constance Darling, a former lover and student of Jacques Silette, was murdered. It is a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, and Claire has been hired by a man named Leon Salvatore to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his uncle, a man named Vic Willing who was a prominent DA for the city. Leon believes his uncle is dead, but he wants to learn what happened to him before he vanished.
Claire is no ordinary PI. She reads Silette, consults the I Ching, and abuses a fair (larger than fair, really) amount of substances in pursuit of the solution to Leon’s mystery. Interwoven with the mystery of Vic’s disappearance, Claire also shares the story of how she met Constance Darling, in addition to another unsolved mystery that continues to haunt her: the disappearance of her best friend Tracie when they were seventeen years old.
This is one of those books where I feel like I need to walk the line. Of course I don’t want to give away what happened to Vic Willing, but more importantly, I don’t want to give away the smaller mysteries the book contains, because they are part of its charm. Claire uses instinct, dreams, and signs as her primary tools for working her mysteries (notice I didn’t say solving), and while that kind of thing could get hokey and annoying pretty quickly, in Gran’s capable hands they seem like natural tools for the private eye, probably because Claire herself is anti-social, smart, and gritty—the last person you would expect to believe that a roll of the dice could reveal anything other than a pair of numbers. She also gives quaint names to the mysteries she works on (Vic’s is “The Case of the Green Parrot”; another is “The Case of the Missing Miners” ), which seems like a sly and charming nod to golden-age mystery series
The other compelling character in this novel is the city of New Orleans. I don’t think I’ve seen a documentary or read a news story yet that quite captures what it must have been (must still be to some extent?) like post-Hurricane Katrina. Because Vic Willing disappeared days after the hurricane, Claire’s investigation leads her to places and people who are still devastated by the event nowhere near recovery, if they ever will be.
I’m looking forward to reading Gran’s second book in the series, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, and will be anxiously awaiting the third installment. I highly recommend it. And for the record, I own the first book, so it also counts for the TBR Double Dog Dare. (Too bad I don’t own the second one.)
*image and link from Goodreads