Review: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

I can’t remem­ber the sec­ond-last book that I read in a sin­gle day, but I can tell you what the last one was: Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

Thanks, Doug, for sug­gest­ing that I check out this author.

Claire DeWitt is hired by Leon to find out what hap­pened to his uncle Vic, the DA in New Orleans. Vic has van­ished; Leon isn’t sure if he’s alive or dead, though he sus­pects the lat­ter. Leon hired Claire because she’s the best, but she’s far from ordi­nary. A dis­ci­ple of a lit­tle-known French inves­ti­ga­tor, Jacques Silette, who wrote a sin­gle book on his inves­tiga­tive prin­ci­ples, Détec­tion, back in the ‘50s. Silette’s style of detec­tive work is only part­ly about find­ing out who done it; it’s more about solv­ing the mys­tery of one’s own self. Every­one already knows the solu­tion, he claims; it’s just that very, very few are will­ing to accept and admit the truth.

Claire DeWitt remind­ed me of both Sher­lock Holmes and his lat­ter-day avatar Dar­ryl Zero1. She has the uncan­ny abil­i­ty to con­struct entire truths out of the thinnest of clues; after learn­ing that one young man’s sis­ter used to call him Nee-Nee, she not only divined his name (Nicholas) but also his place of birth, the num­ber of sib­lings he had, and the ice-cream par­lour where he’d most recent­ly worked. Like Holmes, too, she has a fond­ness for the drugs: booze, weed, var­i­ous mush­room-based com­pounds — heck, at least once, she smoked a joint laced with embalm­ing flu­id. (No kid­ding.)

But Claire is a com­plete­ly orig­i­nal cre­ation. She’s a fatal­ist, a men­tal case, a per­haps-mur­der­er. She’s a deeply flawed char­ac­ter, an anti-hero who grew up in a decay­ing man­sion, a blood-sis­ter who gave up look­ing for her best friend when she van­ished. Her men­tor was mur­dered in a ran­dom act of sense­less vio­lence.

The set­ting, too, is key. The nov­el is set in New Orleans, post-Kat­ri­na, and the city itself is a char­ac­ter: it’s a wound­ed beast, per­haps mor­tal­ly so, try­ing des­per­ate­ly to recov­er, but it’s not clear if it can recov­er, or even if it’s worth recov­er­ing. It’s not a city for hap­py end­ings, a fact that is repeat­ed sev­er­al times, by dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It’s a warn­ing to the read­er, too: This doesn’t end well. (Does it end well? You’ll have to read it to find out.)

The sto­ry itself is taut­ly plot­ted, and moves along at a great clip. Claire’s leaps of log­ic are (most­ly) explained to the read­er, and they (most­ly) make sense in the end. The sto­ry kept me immersed, com­plete­ly — like I said, I read it in a day, some­thing I haven’t done in a long time.

I loved this book, and I eager­ly look for­ward to read­ing its sequel, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemi­an High­way.

Get it from:
McNal­ly Robin­son
| Chapters/Indigo
| Ama­zon


  1. If you haven’t seen Zero Effect, hunt it down. 

One thought on “Review: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

  1. Just picked up a cou­ple of signed copies of Bohemi­an High­way, and I’ll be hold­ing a contest/drawing soon, so don’t buy it just yet 🙂 glad you liked Claire.

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