A debut novel and first in a promising series.
Claire DeWitt is a grizzled, cynical private detective running from her own demons while trying to solve crimes. Once a young, wide-eyed ingenue of the detective scene, life has hardened her and she now abuses drugs and alcohol while taking on cases she maybe should steer away from. Claire heads to New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina to investigate the murder/disappearance of a New Orleans DA, Vic. Following the interspersed wisdom of dead PI Jacques Silette, and visions of her old mentor, Constance Darling, can Claire figure out what’s going down in New Orleans before she’s the next victim?
I read this as part of a book club and was unsure as to how I would like it, but was pleasantly surprised by this novel. Gran has a really excellent way with words and her ability to turn New Orleans from just a setting for the novel into a real character was highly enjoyable to read. The duality of NOLA as a beautiful, atmospheric, and thriving town on one hand and the dark, crime, and disaster-ridden wreckage on the other feeds into the duality of the characters. Just like NOLA as a town, no one is what they seem and everyone in this book has dueling personality traits. Claire is a woman who fundamentally wants to solve mysteries for others while drowning in her own inability to move on and deal accept the truths she asks her clients to. Andre, her cohort in this novel, is a street kid with a hard life who is trying to overcome it while staying alive. Everyone is fighting with demons, whether it’s those they’ve brought upon themselves or those that haunt them throughout their communities.
I listened to this as an audiobook which was highly enjoyable. The narrator was fantastic and portraying the gruff voice I imagined for Claire. I will say however, it was incredibly jarring to hear a white woman narrating this and just full-on saying the N word. I understand why; it’s a part of the text and was said by an African-American character, but it still felt really jarring every time it happened (which was twice? I think.) There are absolutely valid criticisms of this novel and it’s portrayal of the African-American community of New Orleans as Gran only explores one very specific aspect of life relating to kids raised on the streets.
My biggest criticism comes from my absolute distaste for the conclusion and how out of character Claire’s final decision felt to me as a reader. I won’t spoil it here, but for her to make choices that directly put people into the hands of the legal and police system felt very strange and out of place to me. Up until that point, I was all in on Claire as a character and New Orleans as a setting, but that admittedly took me quite out of fully enjoying this. I would give it a three or three and a half star wise if I had to judge. I don’t know if I would necessarily seek out book two in this series, but if I saw it on the library shelf I would likely check it out.
As an aside, I really love the book titles in this series and book three, The Infinite Blacktop, has an absolutely gorgeous cover that I’ve had many patrons see and pick up purely for that aspect.
Title: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead
Author: Sara Gran
Three Descriptors: Brooding, Flawed, Strong Sense of Place
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