"Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead" by Sara Gran
Review by
D.L. Browne

Nothing ever really ends. The fat lady never really sings her last song. She only changes costume and goes on to the next show. It's just a matter of when you stop watching.

I’m trying to think when I’ve liked a book so well and found myself at such a loss to explain what it was I liked about it. In fact, it wasn’t until after several nights of desultory reading that I turned to page 24 of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and something clicked inside my brain. I found myself unable to put the novel down. I tore through the rest of the book in one day and have been thinking about it ever since. Bottom line: I suspect this is a story that you will either love or hate.

Claire DeWitt is a detective on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Actually, she’s the greatest detective in the world and she’s recovering from a nervous breakdown. She’s a kind of dystopian Mary Poppins (and I don’t mean the spoonful of sugar Mary Poppins) or one of those ancient priestesses cursed with the inability to speak anything but stark truth, no matter the cost.

Claire returns to New Orleans, the city where years earlier her beloved teacher and mentor was murdered, to discover the fate of a prominent, wealthy ADA who disappeared during Hurricane Katrina. A very simple plot for a story that is anything but simple.

It’s clear from the start that like all eccentric Master Detectives, Claire doesn’t need the dough. The unraveling of mysteries is her vocation and calling. In fact, this is a novel as much about the nature of truth and reality and human connections as it is about solving the mystery of what happened to the (possibly ironically named) Vic Willing.

Using dreams, drugs, and the I Ching, as well as the usual investigative techniques, Claire tracks the final days of Willing. As she explores the shadowy nooks and crannies of Willing’s life, we examine Claire’s dark corners as well, from her early days as an aspiring girl detective (complete with decoder ring) to the mysterious disappearance of one of her two best friends -- a relationship that seems somehow mirrored in the friendships of her prime suspect -- and finally to her apprenticeship under the late Constance Darling.

Throughout the story we’re doled out snippets of a legendary detective manual called Détection written by the enigmatic character Jacques Silette. The Silette bits are more philosophical insight than practical use, but that’s much of the point. In fact, I wondered if the happy coincidence of Silette’s name might not be coincidence but based on the old Agfa viewfinder cameras.

Part mystery, part fantasy, part -- I don’t know what the heck to call it! This is a book I knew I would be rereading even before I finished it. Gran’s narrative voice is engaging, her sense of place and setting superb, her characters memorable and well-crafted. If I have one complaint it’s when I realized this was the first of a series. Like Claire, I wanted all my mysteries resolved. And like Claire, I shall have to be patient and see where the journey leads.

Highly recommended.

* * * * *

Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead
By Sara Gran
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
June 1960

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Report respectfully submitted by D.L. Browne. A version of this review was originally published in June 2011 on Sally Powers' I Love a Mystery blog. Used with permission.


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