NOVEMBER 27, 2013
WE FIRST MET PRIVATE detective Claire DeWitt in 2011’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. I came to that book expecting good things because I liked all of Sara Gran’s previous work (Dope, Come Closer, Saturn’s Return to New York), but — as someone who had grown tired of crime writers being pushed to create a series character — I was also ambivalent. I won’t say I’d written off all series, but I’d certainly soured on some (even ones I’d once found appealing) and on the concept as a whole. If it wasn’t Hoke Moseley, I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with it. But Gran surprised me. In addition to reinvigorating the idea of what a series could be, Gran also discarded the mold of the private detective novel, shaping her clay into something new. I typically like my crime novels gritty, less about detection and more about character; Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead manages to appease us all: the series-wanters, the character-seekers, and mystery-hounds. Claire DeWitt is a detective, sure, but she’s also into drugs and Chinese medicine and mysticism. She’s conflicted, confused, the perfect guide through a ruined world of puzzles.
You do not need to have read the first entry in the series to appreciate Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, but if you’re like me and you sort of fall in love with Claire, you need to know some things about her to fully understand the swirl of desperation that consumes her. Back in Brooklyn (where she’s from), Claire and her two best friends, Tracy and Kelly, were girl detectives who haunted Manhattan’s Lower East Side and hung out at dive bars like the Holiday Cocktail Lounge and solved mostly small-time cases. They were devotees — as if by some sort of magical reckoning — of a French detective named Jacques Silette, whose book, Détection, they considered their Bible. When Tracy went missing and neither Claire nor Kelly could turn up any evidence on her disappearance, they parted ways and Claire went down a path that led her to Constance Darling, one of Silette’s greatest students, in New Orleans. In the wake of Constance’s murder, Claire wound up in San Francisco where she’d gained a reputation as the best — and most troubled — private detective in the world. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead found her back in New Orleans, turning up old ghosts and uncovering new ones. In this most recent book, Claire is home in San Francisco, where her ex-boyfriend Paul, a wealthy musician, has been murdered in what looks like a botched robbery. Several of his guitars are missing but the door to his house has been locked from the outside. (The title refers to another house he and his wife have, on the Bohemian Highway north of San Francisco, which comes into play later in the book).
The main thread of the book is Claire’s investigation into Paul’s murder. He and his wife Lydia’s seemingly perfect marriage doesn’t hold up under a microscope. “There’s always a but,” Claire informs us. “If there wasn’t we’d all be perfect and no one would ever kill anyone and we wouldn’t need detectives.” But so much more happens here: in flashback we get a missing girl story from Claire’s Brooklyn years, giving us deeper insights into Claire’s character and providing a glimpse of places the series is likely to go. The Red Detective, one of Claire’s mystical advisors, insists that Paul’s death is directly related to the missing girl(s) in Claire’s past, and she pursues that baffling lead as if it were hard evidence. Claire also finds herself getting deeper and deeper into drugs. In The City of the Dead, she wasn’t shy about smoking weed dipped in embalming fluid; here, she snorts so much coke and steals so many prescription pills that we’re exhausted for her. Other stories set up future revelations as well: Claire, for instance, is caught up remembering a series of comics that she, Tracy, and Kelly read as girls called the Cynthia Silverton Mystery Digest. She tracks down a blogger in Oakland who has a complete set, a rarity, and studies them for clues, coming to the realization that the books, like Détection, seem to have arrived in their lives under enigmatic circumstances (which didn’t seem particularly unusual at the time). The structure of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway is masterful, giving the appearance, at times, of a neat whodunit but subverting convention at every turn.
I won’t make boring proclamations about Claire being the only kind of private detective we can realistically believe in these days. Blurbists throw around names like Lisbeth Salander and Kinsey Millhone and Nancy Drew and Lew Griffin — I don’t subscribe to those sorts of comparisons. Claire feels new. Imagine if Neko Case were a detective. Claire is ethereal in that same way. She’s keyed into the world’s electrified interior. There’s no difference between mystery and Mystery to her. Everything sparkles with the sharpness of uncertainty and the promise of knowing. Claire tells us: “A clue is a word in another language, and mysteries speak the language of dreams. Mysteries speak the alchemical language of the birds. There is no dictionary. Not even for me.” Gran often wraps up chapters by having Claire quote from Détection. The fact that expert detective Silette was undone by a case he could not solve informs everything Claire knows about, as Silette puts it, “being alone in the woods.”
Claire’s immediate concern is with the cases before her (and there are, at a given moment, many, ranging from finding Paul’s murderer to uncovering who is behind the poisoning of miniature horses), but her greater concern is with humankind. The book’s epigraph, from Détection, includes the following from Silette:
I believe that someday, perhaps many lifetimes from now, all will be explained, and all mysteries will be solved. All knowledge will be free for the taking, including the biggest mystery of all — who we really are.
Ultimately, that’s what Claire is after — finding out who we are and why we’re here. Why do people go missing? Why do people die? What is the force behind it all? No small case for a private dick. Which is why Claire seeks consolation in hard drugs and empty sex. Questioning a potential accomplice to Paul’s murder near the end of the book, a kid who has broken down in tears, Claire says:
Suddenly my face was wet and I realized I was crying too. I felt bad for the kid. I felt bad for all of us, for the whole fucking world. Our fucking hearts. No wonder they were so hard to come by these days. They were hiding from us, trying to preserve what little life they had left for someone who would appreciate them. Or at least not murder them.
Claire, though withdrawn and difficult, is deeply empathetic. She feels things more fully, is unable to brush distress off the way average people do: in short, it’s impossible for her to enjoy being alive without knowing the answers to every question that stumps her. Fear and loneliness, Silette says, are the detective’s only companions in the dark woods where she will often find herself. Claire worries so we don’t have to.
You’ll get no complaints from me about anything that happens or doesn’t happen in Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. Gran pulls the narrative in many directions and I imagine this might frustrate some readers, especially those accustomed to a brand of bland neatness. But Gran’s building something here, something bigger and better than a mere series. She’s building a labyrinthine world and filling it out completely, and I’m just happy to be along for the ride. Claire DeWitt is a woman who spends her free time “watching Iggy Pop Videos on YouTube and trying to research miniature horse suicides,” and she has my heart.