Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead
by Sara Gran
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011)
When it comes to murder mysteries, I'm going to be up front about this: I'm not a fan. After growing up on countless police procedurals and whodunits on TV, I am weary of the formula. So, when a mystery novel comes my way, I'm already opening the book with a clear bias against it. Which makes Sara Gran's new private eye, Claire Dewitt, a genuine stand out for me--because I loved this book.
Actually, I should be a little clearer than that. It's not so much the book that I love, but the character of Claire Dewitt, because she is such an outlier from what I've read of the genre.
I read one review of this book that described Dewitt as "Nancy Drew by way of Hunter S. Thompson." I can kind of see that, since Dewitt is a former child detective now grown up, tatted up, and has no compunction with taking recreational drugs.
Dewitt gets a call to come back to New Orleans, her former stomping grounds with her late mentor, Constance Darling, to investigate the disappearance of a state prosecutor in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city holds bad memories for her as she hasn't been there since her mentor was murdered. And when she arrives, memories flood back to her of her formative years in Brooklyn, New York, with her two best friends--one now dead and the other estranged--as well as dreams in which Constance Darling and others visit her to give cryptic clues on where she needs to go next in her investigation.
Like I mentioned before, I didn't become engrossed in the mystery of this novel nearly as much as I did with Claire Dewitt, herself. She's brusk, snarky, and surprisingly delicate at times. Her relationships with others are especially intriguing, as no one she knows really seems to like her, and she appears find with that. Her discipline comes from a vague adherence to I Ching philosophy, the memoirs of a master detective from France named Silette--oh yeah, and the drugs. She's incredibly effective at solving mysteries, though the murder of her mentor and her childhood friend still elude her. And while jealousy of her skills may be the source of dislike from those who know her, there's a self-destructive quality to her that rings through, and maybe people just don't want to be around her when she finally detonates--she's already spent time in a mental hospital.
If another character managed to stand out it was Gran's portrayal of New Orleans. Dewitt's journeys through the ravaged streets is a heartbreaking one at times, added with a puzzling subplot concerning an unmarked van Dewitt sees lurking the city time and again.
It's a riveting mystery in a city saturated by tragedy, and Claire Dewitt acts as a beacon of sanity--or incredibly focused insanity--as she tries to do a single bit of good while she's there. It's a wonderful story, and if there are more Claire Dewitt novels in the future, I look forward to reading each of them.