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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