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Monday, September 19, 2011

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran (hardcover, $24)

Claire DeWitt is an original. She is a private investigator and her methods are unusual. Zen, drugs, "I Ching," herbs, alcohol, intuition, legwork, whatever it takes is what she uses to solve her mysteries. Each case is labeled in the best Nancy Drew fashion: for instance, "The Case of the Green Parrot." It is that case which brings Claire, now in her late thirties, back to New Orleans, the city where she learned how to be the best detective from mentor Constance Darling and Jacques Silette, author of D├ętection.

It was hard to know at first what path author Sara Gran would take with her story. Claire DeWitt was so out-there that it could have been just an ordinary woo-woo story, especially with the voodoo and mysticism that New Orleans brings to mind. Of course, New Orleans also brings to mind the devastation Hurricane Katrina brought to the people and buildings there. When Claire arrives back in NO years after Katrina, post-hurricane corruption, lawlessness, death, and debris still taint what was once a good-time city. Gran puts all of this, and more, into the mix to create one of the most unusual detective stories I've read in a while.

There are three main stories Gran wants to tell, but none of them are quite linear. Assistant District Attorney Vic Willing disappeared right after the flood. His nephew has hired Claire to find out what happened to him. In the process of working that case, Claire comes across how-it's-done now in NO, how the no-class refugees of the flood get along to survive. One of those survivors is a young man, Andray Fairview, who knew Vic. Andray is part of the drug-dealing, gun-toting baby gangs that litter NO with gunshots and bodies. The last story involves a childhood friend, Tracy, from Brooklyn, where Claire grew up. Tracy disappeared one afternoon, just as she, Claire, and Kelly, another friend, were on the verge of escaping their depressing and dysfunctional lives in Brooklyn.

Let me stop for a minute and talk about the characters' names. Is Claire DeWitt clear of wits? Is Andray Fairview brave and just? Is Constance Darling a constant and true presence? How about Tracy who disappeared without a trace? Let's not forget Vic Willing who may have been an unwilling victim. Are some of the names meant to be sarcastic? And what does Jacques Silette mean? Who knows? Perhaps Gran means that to be a mystery her readers must solve. Most of the rest of the characters have names like Mike, Mick, and Jack. They aren't throwaway characters, but they are just catalysts for the most part.

Gran dissolves a gut-wrenching depiction of New Orleans into a prescient dream into a flashback of Claire's youth in Brooklyn into Claire's life and resurrection with Constance. Each scene has its own song: from hard-edged and bleak to floaty and whimsical to mystical and exuberant. Even three-quarters of the way through the book, it was still hard to know where Gran would take us. A solution involving an extraterrestrial flying saucer would not have been out of the question.

Gran's affection for New Orleans lifts off the pages. She tells us about the Black Indians, plays "Iko Iko" in the background, mourns the passing of neighborhoods into yuppiedoms, and has Claire slurping margaritas until three in the morning. There's more to NO than just the Mardi Gras; Gran tells us to appreciate the cultural core that underlies that mostly tourist event.

Threading the book are excerpts from Jacques Silette's book, D├ętection, a manual for the investigation of mysteries. Copies of this obscure book pop up throughout the story. Here are some of Silette's thoughts on mystery and solution:

•"For the detective whose eyes have truly been opened ... the solution to every mystery is never more than inches away."

•"The detective and the client, the victim and the criminal -- all already know the solution to the mystery.

"They need only to remember it, and recognize it when it appears."

•"Those who try to grasp on to the mystery will never succeed ... Only those who let it slip their fingers will come to know it, and hear its secrets."

This is the manual and method that Constance uses to teach Claire how to be a detective. It would be splendid if it were real. When the story opens, Constance has been dead for some time. Claire immediately left New Orleans afterwards, and coming back to New Orleans now is a way of also coming to terms with her feelings for Constance. This is what Claire says about Constance:

"She taught me to read fingerprints like tea leaves and eyes like maps. She taught me how to smell trouble literally and figuratively. She sent me to lamas and tulkus, to swamis and psychics. Like most detectives, she kept a police scanner in the kitchen, and if we weren't busy we'd go to crime scenes and solve the crimes before the NOPD even showed up."

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a strange mixture of noir and whimsey, but I quite liked being kept off balance. I would like to hear more Zen-like words of wisdom from Silette. I nominate Sara Gran for more tales of the art of metaphysical detection.

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