[This is an excerpt from a longer essay on 2011 crime fiction by Cullen Gallagher.]
THE TRAUMA OF CHILDHOOD DISAPPEARANCE haunts Sara Gran’s latest, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, the first in a proposed series. In 1987, Claire’s best friend, Tracy, stepped onto a subway car and was never heard from again. Decades later, Claire is now a private detective — “the best detective in the world,” according to DeWitt herself — but is still haunted by her friend’s sudden vanishing. But Tracy’s mystery belongs to New York City; for the present, Claire is in New Orleans, looking into another missing persons case. Vic Willing was a lawyer who disappeared during Hurricane Katrina. Vic is presumed dead, and his estate has gone to his nephew, Leon Salvatore. But Leon wants to know for sure what fate befell his uncle, so Claire DeWitt begins to look into the private affairs of this supposed do-gooder, who offered his services free to New Orleans’ troubled youth. Her search leads her to the Katrina riots, where even one’s best intentions couldn’t atone for past sins.
Claire DeWitt is a change of pace from Gran’s previous book, Come Closer. Like a cross between Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Blatty’s The Exorcist, Come Closer was an allegorical horror novel, detailing how a young woman’s inner demons and loss of self-control slowly destroy her marriage and personal life. Genuinely disturbing and gripping from start to finish, Come Closer showed Gran’s keen eye for psychological detail, vivid atmosphere, and innovative genre approach. Before that, there was Dope, a revisionist noir, told from the perspective of one of those 1950s B-girls that were normally overlooked as mere stock characters. An ex-junkie-turned-thief, Josephine “Joe” Flannigan takes a job as a PI to look into the disappearance of a drug-addicted Barnard student. A desolate tour through a bygone New York, Dope nailed the time period without falling into the trappings of nostalgia or pastiche.
One can see traces of Dope‘s street-wise protagonist in Claire DeWitt, but Claire is unmistakably a new creation for Gran, and an attempt to fashion a new mold for the 21st-century P.I. Claire takes inspiration from mind-altering drugs, finds answers in her dreams, and religiously follows a philosophical book called Détection, from which she quotes regularly. After awhile, though, Claire’s metaphysics and Détection‘s treatises begin to grow tiresome (example: “When a person disappears, the detective must look at what she took with her when she left — not only the material items, but what is gone without her; what she carries with her to the underworld; what words will go unspoken…”). The novel’s strength lies not in its many conjectures and theories on the nature of detection, but in the process itself. Claire’s journey through New Orleans is thick with atmosphere, and while she herself might be interested in heady concepts, the people she meets have complex problems that are all too recognizable, and that don’t lend themselves to easy solutions.