Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead

I hadn’t read anything by Sara Gran until I picked up Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead out of the 50% off bin. Perhaps, like Claire DeWitt’s introduction to detection, it was meant to be.

Claire DeWitt is nearly forty, and the best detective in the world. Or she’s completely crazy. Or, maybe, both of those things. She charges a lot of money and she gets results, but her clients usually end up hating her – and that’s not at all surprising.

Claire has come back to New Orleans, a city she knew well, two years after Hurricane Katrina, to find out what happened to her client’s uncle, who disappeared during the storm. He just vanished, like so many others, but he was an assistant district attorney with money and connections. Victor Willing was probably the only uncorrupted DA in the entire parish, but there still is a hint of possible foul play. Vic’s nephew, Leon, just wants closure.

Claire learned the art of detection from a book written by the eccentric Frenchman Jacques Silette. The book is called Detection. The book came to Claire in an unusual way when she was a child. It seems that the book often comes to future detectives in unusual ways. Claire also had the chance to work with Constance Darling, on the Silette’s finest students, until Constance was murdered in New Orleans.

“ ‘Never be afraid to learn from the ether,’ Constance told me. ‘That’s where knowledge lives before somebody hunts it, kills it and mounts it in a book.’”

To solve the mystery, Claire uses clues she finds on the street or on billboards, in dreams, or from I Ching hexagrams that are like none I’ve ever read.:

Hexagram 25: Snake on the mountain. The snake swallows his own tail and is never satiated. When the queen weeps, the rice weeps with her. A good man feeds rice to the snake, and at last he is full. A home without rice is a home without joy.

This makes the book sounds airy-fairy and woo-woo, and it is not. This is one of the grittier mysteries I’ve read lately. Gran’s descriptions of the battered city, the devastation and the continued corruption are clear and concrete. Part of the reason Claire’s less-mundane techniques work is because Gran plants them right next to the hyperrealism of her descriptions.

Claire has to figure out what happened to Victor Willing, but the genesis of her role as a detective is a case that remains unsolved. It is the disappearance of her girlhood friend. Three girls together discovered the book Detection, but one of them vanished. Claire is still haunted by this loss.

City of the Dead is about dualities; Vic is a complicated person. So is Claire; so is Andrey, a street-kid she meets during the investigation. Claire is a fascinating character, who lies to almost everyone, never keeps a promise, never met a drug she didn’t try, and has had at least one psychotic episode. She is a loyal friend, a deeply insightful person and a brilliant detective. Vic Willing embodies the best and the worst of people. Maybe I should say Vic embodies the best and worst of New Orleans. Gran focuses his last few hours on a part of the Katrina tragedy that everyone knew about but didn’t get much air time, and makes it a heart-wrenching part of the story. Vic is an honest DA. He is a man who victimizes other to satisfy his appetites. He is heroic and venial.

The name Vic Willing is a play on words that curves back to the enigmatic Silette and his method of detecting. The book is full of word plays, symbolism, and eerie imagery. Gran includes information about the crewes, the famous New Orleans Mardi Gras clubs, and introduced me to the Indians, another group associated mostly with Mardi Gras, but based around music.

It would be easy to say that New Orleans is an exotic, haunted city and it is easy to write a clever book about it, but that’s a cop-out. Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a popular setting and all kinds of writers are using it, but they aren’t writing a book like this one. As a writer, I think Gran might be a master surfer; perfectly, perilously balanced, riding the wave, using the force of the ocean to direct but not control her story; still, maintaining perfect control. I’m envious. I’m filled with awe.

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