Saturday, June 9, 2012

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Private eye Claire DeWitt has been solving mysteries since she was twelve. She's a gal who is willing to ingest pretty much anything. She's like a Nancy Drew who studied with Carlos Castaneda.

"A few months ago, after a hard case, I'd gone on a fast to purify myself from its ill effects. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I did not stop using drugs. A week went by, then two, then a month. After fourteen days, I could see the codes in grocery receipts and billboards. After thirty days I could read clues in the wind, see signs in the clouds." Some hospital time follows.

The job that Claire thinks of as the Case of the Green Parrot takes place a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina. A man in New Orleans hires her to find out what happened to his uncle, who disappeared during the big storm. Claire tells her client that she is 42, even though she is 35, because "no one trusts a woman under forty."

Constance Darling taught Claire the finer points of detection. There was always something going on at her mansion in New Orleans. "The day before it had been Constance's meditation teacher, Dorje, in his saffron robes, making mushroom tea in the kitchen. The day before that we'd interviewed a German shepherd. Life was never dull with Constance." "She taught me to read fingerprints like tea leaves and eyes like maps."

Claire casts the I Ching for clues. A scrap of paper stuck to her shoe? Definitely important. Drug-addled dreams supply more clues. Mornings are hard: "I need food. But first I need to take a shower. In coffee." 

Strangers are often fearful of Claire, based on her appearance: "I'd dressed in a hurry and I wasn't at my visual best. I wore boots, jeans, two black sweaters, and a red vintage women's overcoat with an ermine collar that probably should have been retired. I was also suffering from an unfortunate homemade haircut/bleach job that had involved pinking shears." Claire has few friends... and even they won't take her calls.

Claire trusts that all will be revealed if she pays attention as she moves through a world of crime and corruption.

"The hardest thing about buying a gun in Louisiana was that there were so many options I hardly knew where to begin. I heard shots at least once a day. Half the men in the city wore clothes so big, they could carry an arsenal under them. Out of the sliver by the river, spent casings and shells crunched underfoot on the sidewalk like crack vials or fall leaves. The suburbs west of the city were lined with pawnshops that advertised $99 SPECIAL ON 9 MILLIMETER and HANDGUN SALE and SPECIAL ON UZIS."

"[T]his city knows how to tell a beautiful story. But if you're looking for a happy ending, you better be lookin' somewhere else." Author Sara Gran knows how to tell a spellbinding story. She has created an unforgettable character in Claire DeWitt and I sure hope to encounter her again.

Readalikes that match the noir crime aspect where the difference between the good guys and bad is unclear, because everyone is both, plus stylish writing and some humour: The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter; and pretty much anything by James Sallis or Walter Mosley. I was also reminded of the Micky Knight lesbian detective series by J.M. Redmann (beginning with Death by the Riverside) because of the female sleuth in one dangerous situation after another in New Orleans.

What makes Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead so crazy good is how unusual it is. For readers like me who are attracted to the new and different, not necessarily noir, try: Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King); or The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn (Sean Dixon).

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