Laura Ellen Scott, an occasional contributor to Art & Literature, takes a look at Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and The City of The Dead, a New Orleans-set mystery novel that was garnering critical acclaim and high praise from readers even before its publication last week. Scott has the inside scoop on stories set in New Orleans; her own forthcoming novel, Death Wishing, is set in the French Quarter, post-Katrina; that book is due in October. — Art Taylor
Claire DeWitt and The City of The Dead
By Sara Gran
Reviewed by Laura Ellen Scott
What happens to girl detectives when they grow up? According to Sara Gran’s marvelous Claire DeWitt and The City of The Dead, your basic Nancy Drew type is in for dark days in her middle age. Narrated by the tattooed, drug using title character, Gran’s new mystery is dark, tough, and a bit magical as she writes convincingly of New Orleans as a PTSD-ridden city in which detectives are ethereal, gifted, and mystically inclined.
Unironically identified as the world’s greatest PI, Claire DeWitt is a devotee of Jacque Silette’s Détection, the enigmatic manual she carries with her at all times. Using dreams, drugs, and the I Ching as her primary investigative tools, DeWitt’s interpretation of Silette’s philosophy is that a detective needs to see as much as possible by any means possible:
“When a person disappears,” Silette wrote in Detection, “the detective must look at what she took with her when she left—not only the material items, but what is gone without her; what she carries with her to the underworld; what words will go unspoken; what no longer exists if she is made to disappear.”
Barely recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by extensive fasting and drug use, DeWitt takes on a two-year-old missing persons case in New Orleans, the city of her training. She hasn’t been back since her mentor, the previous number one detective in the world, was shot to death in a French Quarter restaurant. Now DeWitt has returned to investigate the disappearance of a successful New Orleans DA named Vic Willing who seems to have made it through Katrina but perhaps not the cultural devastation of its aftermath.
Willing is described as a great guy, but there the details end. His is largely a public, political persona, and no one, not even the nephew who hires DeWitt, can provide useful details about the DA’s personal life. All Willing has left behind is an elegantly appointed apartment and some spoiled birdseed. Thus begins Claire’s instinctive investigation:
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 seen them before. But they were there.
Not surprisingly Dewitt’s search takes her to the streets where Willing’s reputation as a tough prosecutor is well known. When she discovers two teenage gang members who know more about the DA’s disappearance than they are willing to let on, DeWitt unflinchingly engages them on their own turf, the violence ravaged world of so-called Katrina “survivors.”
I watched Lawrence…. I measured his rate of breath and the depth of his inhalations: fast and shallow. I looked into his eyes and read the marks on his irises. I studied his tattoos. In addition to the usual gang and neighborhood markers, a zipper was inked across his neck; it screamed suicidal ideation.
It wasn’t a hard tale to read. Just an old, sad one. One I knew better than I wanted to.
The chapters in Claire DeWitt and The City of The Dead are brief, and the gritty narration alternates between DeWitt’s search for Willing and the recollections/visions provoked by her return to New Orleans. As she gets closer to understanding Andray Fairview, a strange and sensitive young thug whose prints are all over Vic Willing’s apartment, DeWitt recalls her days growing up in a crumbling, rubbish-filled mansion in Brooklyn where her distracted parents let her run wild and otherwise live out her teen detective fantasies. The fantasies became real when one of her friends disappeared without a clue, and that mystery, which is never solved, haunts Claire forever. As it turns out, the life of a natural detective is full of mysteries, and not even Silette himself was immune. His driving obsession was the unsolved disappearance of his beloved daughter, Belle.
As a backdrop for recovering the ancient implications of the term “mystery,” one might expect a more sentimental New Orleans than this rubble-filled wasteland where buildings collapse without warning and violent children rule the street. But Sara Gran’s greatest accomplishment in Claire DeWitt and The City of The Dead is that she helps us look through the horror of post-Katrina violence to better understand that its perpetrators are children who live without dreams. And as Claire DeWitt demonstrates again and again, dreams are essential to discovery. — Laura Ellen Scott