A while ago I read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. It was a new experience for me; far from a standard detective story. Although it is set completely in this world, it felt a little like reading New Weird. Sara Gran, the author, sets up a detective story that takes place in the eddies and air pockets at the edge of the mainstream. Claire DeWitt, for example, is an actual detective, but she became one when a strange book called Detection, written by a French detective named Silette, comes into her hands. Detection can’t be found online or in a regular bookstore, apparently; people stumble across a copy of it; in some cases it falls off a shelf at their feet. If you find the book, and read the book, you have been initiated into a strange fraternity of detectives, who treat the work almost as if it has a… well, not exactly spiritual, but at least metaphysical component. There are, maybe, a double-handful of Silette detectives, and Claire DeWitt is the best one in the world. We know this because she tells us so.
City of the Dead was set in New Orleans, a few years after Katrina, and is a story of love, loyalty, corruption and neglect. Claire got clues from dreams and random occurrences. She also did a lot of drugs. It was New Orleans, and that didn’t seem so weird.
But I’m writing about the second Claire DeWitt mystery; Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. In this installment, Claire is back in the San Francisco Bay area, investigating the murder of an old friend and lover. Paul Casablancas was a gifted musician. It looks like he surprised a robber and was shot, but Claire doesn’t think so. This is the primary mystery, but the story also follows a mystery Claire and her friend Tracey (herself the subject of a mystery) solved when they were teenagers in Brooklyn. Paul’s murder is not a who-done-it. Claire knows early on who pulled the trigger (and so, really, do we) but the story is about the how and the why. The backstory assumes much greater importance in this book.
And this book, really, is about Claire having another break with reality, as her mourning for her lost love takes her totally off the rails. Along the way the book is filled with interesting characters and strange after-hours clubs and “back rooms;” vintage clothing shops (all the women in the book wear vintage; we don’t know why). For, not comic relief exactly, but a lighter note, there is another mystery Claire is working on in Marin County, where a man who raises miniature horses is having them die. The horses are cute.
There was nothing really wrong with Bohemian Highway until the end. As she did in City of the Dead, Gran balances the backstory with the current mystery very nicely. Claire’s headfirst plunge into self-destruction is done very well, but I became bored with it after a while. And ultimately, because there was no real mystery about the killing, this book failed to satisfy on some level. Perhaps it was the final few chapters, which end on a cliffhanger and carried a miasma of desperation. “I know these aren’t selling well, but look! People will want to know what happens! Please, publisher, but the third one.”
I recommend Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead easily. I say don’t be in a rush to pick up the second one. And we’ll see if there is a third.