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Book Review: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran

The world's greatest detective uses drugs, the I Ching, and an old French book to solve a missing persons case in New Orleans.


Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 273 pages



Claire DeWitt is not your average private investigator. She has brilliant skills of deduction and is an ace at discovering evidence. But Claire also uses her dreams, omens, and mind-expanding herbs to help her solve mysteries, and relies on Dètection-the only book published by the great and mysterious French detective Jacques Silette before his death.




Claire DeWitt is one of the most likable detective mystery leads I've read in quite a while. She's gritty, hard-edged, capable, and a little out there. She follows her instincts and the teachings of her late mentor, Constance Darling, "the greatest detective in the world." She's got a dark past (details of which are only hinted at in this book), but she is not a dark person.

Oh, and she goes the entire book without a single stray romantic thought. I think there was a reference to an ex at some point, but basically this is a straightforward detective yarn that does not labor under the burden of a romantic subplot for "character development." I hope the author maintains this state of affairs in future books. (I mean, sure, Claire probably needs a social life eventually, but mystery series tend to jump the shark once the main character is dealing with Relationships and family and shit, especially when the main character is a woman.)


"The detective thinks he is investigating a murder or a missing girl. But truly he is investigating something else altogether, something he cannot grasp hold of directly. Satisfaction will be rare. Uncertainty will be your natural state. Sureness will always elude you. The detective will always circle around what he wants, never seeing it whole. We do not go on despite this. We go on because of it."


Constance Darling's teachings were very much on the mystical side, guided by the work of famous (fictional) French detective Jacques Silette, whose book, Dètection, is now Claire's Bible. Claire supplements the New Age mysticism with a willingness to experiment with whatever recreational pharmaceuticals are at hand. However, she's already pretty good at kneecapping people and shooting out tires.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead takes place in New Orleans, and the ravages of Katrina are very much a part of the physical and social landscape. A wealthy, popular D.A. has gone missing, and his nephew (who is the missing lawyer's heir) asks Claire to find his uncle. Claire says early on that clients always lie and that they rarely want you to actually solve their mystery — they want you to tell them it's unsolvable so they can move on. So already there are suspects and red herrings.

The plot is a fairly straightforward missing persons case, and while it takes some twists and turns and the solution to the mystery is probably not what you thought it was at the beginning of the book, it's not anything wildly unexpected.

Two things made this a really good book, besides the writing style. (If Dashiell Hammett was a woman, he might have written like Sara Gran.) First, the whole notion of the teachings of some obscure French detective being passed on from one apprentice to the next, as if being a private eye was like being a wizard, actually seems plausible the way Claire treats it.


"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."


Second, the author makes post-Katrina New Orleans vivid, tragic, vibrant, and deadly in a compellingly believable manner. Not being from New Orleans, I cannot say how true to life this book is, but it certainly seemed like I was being walked through the actual streets of New Orleans.

This is the first book in what the author says she plans as a lengthy series, and I'm certainly on board for the next one.



Verdict: Claire DeWitt joins Joanna Brady, Amelia Peabody, Precious Ramotswe, and Ellie McEnroe as one of my favorite lady detectives. I wasn't really interested in this book when it showed up as an Audible Daily Deal, but some positive reviews convinced me to give a try, and I'm glad I did. It's right on the borderline, but I'm adding it to my Highly Recommended list for anyone who likes detective mysteries.




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Tags: books, highly recommended, mystery, reviews, sara gran
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