Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review of City of the Dead by Sara Gran (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Having discovered a copy of Jacque Silette’s ‘Détection’ as a teenager, Claire DeWitt was always destined to be a private investigator. Her path to being the self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective has not been straightforward, however. A teenage friend disappeared never to be found, her Silette-trained mentor, Constance, was murdered, and she’s recovering from a major nervous breakdown. When she’s asked to take a job in New Orleans to find a missing district attorney post-Katrina, she knows she’ll be encountering more than the case. DeWitt was schooled by Constance in the city and she still has acquaintances there. She finds the city still in turmoil months after the hurricane. The DA seemingly vanished without a trace. Drawing on her copy of Détection, her dreams, I Ching dice and contacts, she starts to investigate, partly hunting for clues, partly creating noise to see what happens. It seems though that nobody really wants the truth to out.

Claire DeWitt is somewhat of an unusual private detective. She is a devotee of the philosophy and methods of French detective, Jacque Silette, author of ‘Détection’, religiously following his oblique advice, and drawing on her dreams and I Ching dice to cast light on cases. She’s headstrong, abrasive and self-assured, yet is also carrying a lot of emotional baggage and mental health vulnerabilities. Her first case after residing in a retreat after a nervous breakdown is to find out what happened to a missing district attorney in New Orleans after the Katrina floods. It is a city that holds many memories given that is where she trained under the mentorship of Silette-apprentice, Constance. The city is a still a mess and the crime rate sky high. DeWitt starts with the DA’s clients, young black men hanging around on street corners, making friends and enemies at the same time. It took me a bit of time to get into the tale as the storytelling somewhat drifts much like DeWitt’s approach to the case, at times focusing on the detective and parts of her backstory, at times exploring Silette’s philosophy, and otherwise spooling out the case and the city of New Orleans post-Katrina. At about halfway through I settled into the cadence and style and started to warm to DeWitt. The denouement was not a surprise, but this was a story about the journey not the destination. 

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