Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran (audio)

The “City of the Dead” is New Orleans during & after Hurricane Katrina, and that’s what drew me to this mystery. That’s the whole sum total of my knowledge of Sara Gran’s book when I began it, and that was enough. I love New Orleans and I think my favorite mysteries are those with a strong sense of place, a well-developed sense of location as a pivotal part of the story – stories that couldn’t happen anywhere but where they do. (I’m thinking of Harry Bosch’s Los Angeles, Tana French’s Ireland, Lisa Gardner’s Boston, James Lee Burke’s New Iberia.) And even as far away as Houston – not so far, especially considering all the Katrina-displaced New Orleanians who now live here – the idea of Katrina is evocative and powerful. So the idea of a mystery set in Katrina’s New Orleans was enough to sell me. Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily make the book good… I’ll give Sara Gran herself credit for doing that.

This was a great, and entertaining read (listen). It’s part mystery and part study of New Orleans, and large part mystical magical musings – but perhaps that last is necessary of a study of New Orleans, with myth, legend, Mardi Gras Indians intruding upon the mystery. Our private investigator, Claire DeWitt, bends the classic hard-drinking, silent-loner-type PI to fit into New Orleans’s unique culture: she uses hard drugs and channels her detective hero, Jacques Silette (author of Détection, her bible of detective skills) as well as her mentor, the late Constance, former apprentice to Silette himself. Claire is sort of secondarily hunting her childhood friend and former fellow junior detective, Tracy, who disappeared so many years ago.

So what is the mystery? Claire comes down to NO from California when she’s hired by Leon, who wants to know what happened to his uncle, Vic Willing. Vic disappeared during Katrina, never to be seen again. I’m not sure we ever really settled why this indicates foul play, as lots of people got “lost” in Katrina, but it’s accepted throughout the story that something sinister must have befallen him, and I’m okay with getting on that train. Vic was a successful local DA, and fed birds from his apartment. And there the clues seem to end. Claire quickly gets herself entangled with some local delinquent youngsters, and has various adventures involving gunplay and drugs. Despite her hard exterior, she’s a bit of a softie towards these young men who’ve been dealt “a bad hand,” but she doesn’t let it show much. The mystery of Vic’s disappearance is not the star of this book. Its eventual wrap-up is a bit simplistic; as a strict, standalone mystery it might not impress. But that’s not what this book is about. Rather, several other threads steal the spotlight: Claire’s relationship with Andray and Terell; her relationship with her late mentor Constance; and the mystery (unresolved – maybe that’s another book?) of Tracy’s childhood disappearance, not to mention the interest (the framing element, if you will) of Claire’s nontraditional methods of detection, including throwing the I Ching and analyzing dreams and drug-induced hallucinations. Claire’s approach to mysteries in general is mystical.

There are also some decidedly funny moments; I giggled out loud several times (which will always make people look at me funny). Claire’s voice is wry and cynical, and she speaks in metaphors and self-deprecates. She’s prickly but altogether someone I’d like to know. In conclusion, while Claire has certain qualities in common with your traditional loner-drunken-detective archetype (which, by the way, is not a criticism!), she has plenty of unique quirks that make her very interesting to know. The mystery here is only a backdrop for the drama of New Orleans to play against. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead includes a number of characters I’d like to know better, and while it has a satisfactory and complete ending, it does leave the door open for a sequel. Sara Gran! I want it! Recommended.

Rating: 7 grumpy detectives.

3 Responses

  1. […] Awareness, I have just finished Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, sequel to Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead which you will recall I loved – and this latest is quite good too. And I’ve just […]

  2. […] Highway gives us a refreshingly bizarre twist on the classic private investigator. Readers of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead will recognize Claire’s copious and indiscriminate drug use (she never fails to check a […]

  3. […] it’s all in the dialogue and the internal machinations. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Claire DeWitt, those detectives who solve mysteries by thinking, clearly owe a debt to Poe. In fact, […]

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