Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran: A review

Claire DeWitt and the City of the DeadClaire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always such an unexpected pleasure to meet a writer previously unknown to you who is simpatico, someone whose style you really like and appreciate. I had that experience earlier this year with Kate Atkinson. And now I have met Sara Gran.

I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR recently when their book reviewer started talking about Gran's latest book, her second in a series featuring a detective named Claire DeWitt. The reviewer's description of the detective and of the plot grabbed my attention and I knew I had to have that book.

But since I am an OCD kind of reader, I certainly could not start with the second book in a series. I had to get the first book, which turned out to be Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. I'm really glad I did.

Claire DeWitt is a private investigator - the world's greatest, in her own words - from California, out of Brooklyn by way of New Orleans and many other stops along the way. She is, to put it mildly, an extremely unorthodox investigator. Her primary investigative tools are dreams, drugs, the I Ching, and a dog-eared book that she found in a dumbwaiter in her parent's crumbling mansion in Brooklyn when she was a teenager called Detection by a writer named Jacque Silette. Detection is her religion and Detection, the book, is her bible.

As we meet Claire, she is barely recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by extensive fasting and drug use. She is contacted by a man from New Orleans who wants to hire her to look into the disappearance of his uncle after Katrina. It is early 2007, eighteen months after the storm. This is a very cold case.

Claire had not been back to New Orleans since the woman who was her mentor, the previous greatest detective in the world, had been shot to death along with several other people in a French Quarter restaurant. The murderers were just kids and they were never brought to justice. This is not unusual in the New Orleans that Claire knows.

Vic Willing was a successful New Orleans District Attorney, who, apparently, made it through Katrina but then disappeared without a trace. His nephew, who is the sole heir to his estate, is feeling guilty about accepting his inheritance without knowing what happened to his uncle. Thus, he calls Claire.

The initial investigation of Willing shows him as a very public, political persona, a stereotypical "great guy," but provides very few details about his personal life. Claire gains entry to the missing man's elegant apartment, which she finds to be magazine-spread ready, but on the patio she finds a broken bird feeder and spoiled birdseed. And a parrot - in fact, a Monk Parakeet, sometimes known as Quaker Parrot.

Each clue you find is like a pair of new eyes. Now I looked around the street, and in the trees nearby I saw more birds: finches, pigeons, a female cardinal, a grackle on the ground by the door to the building. I hadn't see them before. But they were there.

Claire's theory of detection is that the clues are all there in the ether, just waiting to be recognized, like the birds that are always there but to which most people are oblivious.

Claire's investigation takes her into the streets of New Orleans, the world of the teenage street gangs and the Black Indians. I found Gran's portrayal of these teenagers particularly poignant, full of empathy for all they had been through in a dysfunctional society that just wants them to disappear. They struggle to create a caring society of their own, a family where they can find value. Gran appears to understand that and to empathize with their plight in a way that most writers who depict New Orleans do not - or at least they do not bother.

It turns out that Vic Willing's world intersected with the world of the teenage gangs and that he had an unexpectedly dark side to his persona, one that ultimately led to his "disappearance." In talking to one of the gang members who had contact with Willing, Claire watches his reactions and all the clues in the ether come together.

It wasn't a hard tale to read. Just an old, sad one. One I knew better than I wanted to.

As we follow Claire DeWitt through this investigation, we are also privy to her memories, memories which come flooding back when she is alone at night, in her dreams or in the altered states created by her use of drugs. We learn about her teenage years in Brooklyn and her "undying" friendship with two other girls, one of whom is now dead and the other of whom is no longer speaking to Claire. We learn about her time in New Orleans with her mentor, where she prepared herself to be the world's number one detective. And we learn about her time shoveling goat manure in California as she was recovering from her breakdown.

DeWitt is a prickly personality, a perfect detective for a modern day noir mystery. Not everyone will love her, but I found her fascinating and I look forward to getting to know her even better in Gran's second book in what I hope will be a long series.

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