Review: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/June 2011

The tattooed, pot-smoking Claire has just arrived in post-Katrina New Orleans, the city she’s avoided since her mentor, Constance Darling, was murdered there. Claire is investigating the disappearance of Vic Willing, a prosecutor known for winning convictions in a homicide-plagued city. Has an angry criminal enacted revenge on Vic? Or did he use the hurricane as a means to disappear?

I was in the mood for a mystery, and something different, and I got both in Claire DeWitt. Claire is in post Katrina New Orleans after being hired to find a man’s uncle who went missing during the terrible flooding. Claire explains her usual high fees and begins her investigation. As Claire has witnessed time and time again, nothing is ever really what it seems, especially in a missing persons case, and soon Claire realizes that she might have her hands full with this one. Vic Willing, a high profile DA, disappeared about 18 months earlier, and his nephew Leon, feels a duty to hire someone to investigate, especially since his uncle left everything to him. Never particularly close to Vic, Leon is unable to provide many details about his uncle, but that’s ok, because Claire is on the case.

Claire DeWitt is such a quirky little book, and it manages to suck you in pretty quickly (at least it did me). Told in Claire’s wry and world weary voice, we follow her as she navigates the sometimes lawless streets of post Katrina New Orleans, digging up clues, smoking the occasional joint, and generally pestering people until she gets what she wants. Claire thinks pretty highly of her skills, having been a devotee of the famous French detective Jacques Silette, and she’s not one to let people put her off. She’s a complex character, and throughout the investigation, gives us little tidbits of insight into her childhood and past, which have much to do with the person she is today. Sporting the pain of one of her best friend, Tracy’s, disappearance at only 16, and the homemade tattoos of her and their other friend Kelly’s initials on her wrists, as well as the sudden death of her mentor, Constance, Claire is quite a force to be reckoned with. While on the case, she befriends a teenage troublemaker who may or may not have something to do with Willing’s death, is shot at, and is certainly not welcome with open arms by the secretive community.

The devastation of a storm ravaged New Orleans provides the perfect background to the investigation of a man that holds his own secrets, and parts of this story will break your heart. Ms. Gran’s prose is spare, but it certainly gets the job done, and her knowledge, and obvious love for, the fascinating history and heart of New Orleans is on full display. It comes in at a bit under 300 pages, so you’ll zip through it fairly quickly, and the author manages to pack quite an emotional punch in such a thin volume, also expertly weaving just a smidge of the supernatural in for a heady mix. This is the start of a series, so I’m sure that more will be learned about the disappearance of Claire’s childhood friend, Tracy, in future novels. At least I hope so, since it’s such a heavy burden that Claire carries. Nevertheless, Claire DeWitt is a highly entertaining and atmospheric mystery, and I can’t wait for future installments!

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