Friday, July 08, 2011

Book: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran (2011)

Brooklyn-born Claire DeWitt found herself when she came across a copy of Jacques Silette’s legendary manual Detection. In spite of some trauma in her life and perhaps because of it, the former girl detective is now the world’s greatest private investigator. Just ask her. A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, Claire returns to New Orleans, a city where she has some history, in order to track down missing D.A. Vic Willing. (We pause now to admire the sheer brilliance of that name.) Claire’s approach is unorthodox, relying on omens and weed as much as shoe leather. And it turns up answers that her client and Claire herself may not want to hear.

Sara Gran, author of Dope and co-ringmaster with Megan Abbott of an excellent blog, has come up with an approach to the mystery novel that toys with the form even as it honors it. Claire is a hugely engaging protagonist with a singular sarcastic voice. She occasionally pushes the edges of likability only to say something unexpected that makes you want to draw her in close. The book brims with New Orleans atmosphere and is breezy in spite of its complexity; it jumps back to Claire’s New York childhood and has a deep but surprisingly organic metaphysical aspect in the form of frequent quotes from Claire’s mentor Silette. City of the Dead is a joy, an intoxicating brew that feels traditional yet wholly new. Like the boy detective books of my youth, it made me want to read the next adventure immediately.