Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

What a peculiar crime novel this is! I liked it, mostly because it kept me guessing, but a lot of my guessing was about the world of the novel, not so much the mystery.

Claire DeWitt is a renowned detective who’s been solving crimes since she was a teenager in Brooklyn. She’s committed to the methods of Jacques Silette, the famous French detective whose book, Detection, offers musings about what it is to seek to solve a crime, not so much tips for questioning suspects or getting fingerprints. Claire does employ some of these traditional methods, but she also throws I Ching coins, consults her dreams, and uses drugs to get into a meditative state. (The drugs are also probably to escape her past, which is a topic that comes up again and again in the book.)

Claire is in New Orleans, not long after Hurricane Katrina, to find out what happened to Vic Willing, one of the city’s district attorneys, who seems to have been missing since before the floods. Looking for Willing brings Claire in contact with a lot of the young men who spend their days on the streets, getting in trouble and making trouble. She forms reluctant partnerships (on both sides) with some of them, in part to gather clues about the community but in part to figure out how they’re connected to Willing’s disappearance. As it typical in crime fiction, everyone involved has secrets, and attempting to unearth them puts Claire in danger.

The story of the crime itself, and its resolution, is not especially original or surprising. What makes this novel by Sara Gran unique and interesting is Claire’s method. She talks about following the clues, but the clues aren’t necessarily straightforward pieces of evidence from a crime scene. A sign she happens to see on a wall might be a clue. Something she recalls in a drug-induced hallucination might be a clue. It’s not detection as a system of assembling evidence. It’s detection as a state of mind, almost a spiritual practice. It’s odd, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I do like the idea of one’s subconscious working things out based on actual evidence, and I think a lot of Claire’s approach is about accessing what the subconscious is uncovering, which is interesting.

Claire herself is an extremely messy detective, with an extremely messy life, but that’s common in the genre, and I liked her enough to want to stick with her and hope that she figures some things out about her own life. Although I also suspect that a Claire DeWitt on the straight and narrow wouldn’t be such a good detective, which makes for a tricky tension.

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2 Responses to Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I’ve seen this series spoken of very highly in a few places so I took the book out and tried it once myself and just couldn’t get into it, but your conclusion that you’ll read more suggests maybe I should give it another go. Because of my crime fiction course, I am always on the prowl for innovative takes on the genre, even if they aren’t entirely to my own taste.

  2. Jenine says:

    I love this series and its unreliable narrator. I liked the humor of watching our ‘detective’ careening around and welcoming altered states of consciousness. But there’s also grief and past trauma that are involved. I think after reading so many mystery novels I liked getting to know this protagonist who is distinctive but also is herself the central mystery.

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