Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dreams and detections in the Crescent City


I am of two minds about Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, first of a mystery series by Sara Gran.

On the one hand, it’s a fast-paced, well-written noir thriller, set in New Orleans in the chaotic year after Hurricane Katrina. Claire DeWitt, the world’s greatest PI (she tells us), is searching for a lawyer named Vic Willing, who had vanished without a trace during the storm. Her search takes us into New Orleans’ violent and unpredictable underworld, where drug abuse, poverty, and corruption are endemic, and where thousands of abandoned children grow up and die in gangs.

The dark and gritty setting is perfectly suited to our detective, the deeply troubled Claire, who doesn’t give a damn about much of anything. Only the mysteries in her life seem to keep her going.

On the other hand, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is kind of weird. In hunting for the solution to the mystery, Claire relies not only on clues and evidence, but also intuition, dreams, coincidences, drug-induced hallucinations, the I Ching, and the wisdom of Jacques Silette, Claire’s guru. Silette’s writings are excerpted throughout the novel, and are either existentially enlightening, or tediously opaque and circular. (I’ll let you decide which.)

Author Gran seems to be trying to marry a detective story with a deeper exploration of psychology and philosophy. Does it work?

I’m not sure it does, really -- but I certainly enjoyed reading this fresh and interesting story. I like my mysteries to be intellectual puzzles with perfectly logical conclusions, which this isn’t. However, I couldn’t put it down, eager to follow Claire as she hunts for clues and wrestles with her own painful and unresolved memories.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is the first of a new series. Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway is next on the list.

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