Reviews by L. J. Roberts

SARA GRAN – Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, June 2011. Mariner Books, trade paperback, May 2012.

SARA GRAN Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Genre:  Private eye. Leading character:   Claire DeWitt, 1st in series. Setting:  New Orleans.

First Sentence: “It’s my uncle,” the man said on the phone.

   Claire DeWitt advertises herself as the world’s greatest private investigator. As such, she accepts a case in recent post-Katrina New Orleans. Her client is the nephew of Vic Willing. The case is to find out what happened to him, the city’s wealthy district attorney who disappeared during the flooding after the hurricane.

   Every now and then, an author comes along with a voice and style that it is almost impossible to describe, quantify, or explain. That was my reaction to Ms. Gran’s first book in a series, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

   At its heart, it’s a classic hard-boiled mystery, complete with drugs, guns, liquor and bad guys. Then intermix with that a detective who was trained by a wealthy New Orleans woman, Constance Darling, and the book Détection, by Jacque Silette…

    “Clues are the most misunderstood part of detection. Novice detectives think it’s about ‘finding’ clues. But detective work is about ‘recognizing’ clues” … plus a layer of dreams, intuition. … “Never be afraid to learn from the ether. That’s where knowledge lives before someone hunts it, kills it, and mounts it in a book.” … and the I-Ching, and you have something that is unique and wonderful.

    Claire is anything but your usual female detective. She’s from Brooklyn, she knows death and drugs and liquor. She’s not a comfortable protagonist. We learn details of her past and life throughout the story. What is interesting is that every character Gran creates is vivid and memorable, including those who don’t exist, such as Constance and Silette. It’s a story that doesn’t really have any minor players, only short scenes.

   Gran’s descriptions are powerful. New Orleans is a city unlike any other yet, particularly in this time setting, she does not make any effort to romanticize it. It is ugly, violent, sad, desperate and very real. Remarkably, however, at the end we’re left with a sense of hope, both for the city and the characters. You want to know what becomes of them, even if they break your heart.

   The true sign of a book that stands above the usual, is that it makes you stop and consider… “What will fill the void left by the missing person? … Who will now breathe his air, eat his food marry his wife? Who will fill his seat at the university lecture, the foot ball game, in the old armchair at home?…” Gran has a different perspective than I’ve ever found.

   The story’s plot may not always be the easiest to follow, but it is so worth paying attention to every word and every clue and giving each page a bit of thought. That’s easy to do as it is thoroughly and completely engrossing. There are times it may seem trite or pretentious, but you then find yourself going back and reading sections again because something about them resonates. Only because I needed to sleep at night, did I ever put it down.

   Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead is a remarkable book. I suspect you will either love it or wonder whether I was indulging in one of Claire’s vices.

Rating:   Excellent.

Bibliographic Note: Book two in this series is Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (June 2013).