Sometimes you come to a book with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. I picked up City of the Dead by Sara Gran in a second-hand book stall and it sat on a shelf for a couple of weeks. It crept up to the top of my reading pile because I fancied something by an American author, as my recent reading has been skewed towards Scandinavian crime fiction. After reading the first chapter it was clear I’d stumbled upon something good.
The plot involves private investigator Claire DeWitt who has been called in to investigate the disappearance of New Orleans Assistant District Attorney, Vic Willing. He disappeared when Hurricane Katrina hit the city and his nephew initially thinks that he died in the storm. But witnesses emerge who remember seeing Willing in the aftermath of the hurricane and Claire is hired to find out the truth.
The plot isn’t unique in subject matter as plenty of crime fiction involves the hunt for the missing. What makes this book stand out is the creation of the character of Claire DeWitt and the juxtaposition between the slightly kooky characterisation and the bleak realities of New Orleans life. Claire lived in New Orleans years ago and trained under the famous detective Constance Darling. After Constance was shot in a restaurant hold-up, Claire became in her words “the best detective in the world”. The back-story to Claire is well-developed. She was part of a gang of three girls who tattooed their entwined initials onto their wrists. However one night one of the three girls, Tracy, disappears, presumably one of the city’s ‘lost’. Fragments of Claire’s dreams about Tracy intersperse the book and are written in a lovely ethereal style.
Claire DeWitt has the touch of the Sherlock Holmes about her. She uses disguises, picks through possessions for seemingly meaningless clues and uses drugs for both recreation and to free her mind to investigate the case. She is a devotee of Jacque Silette’s Détection, a fictional detection manual which she dips into and quotes with evangelical fervour. But unlike Holmes, there is a delusional/odd-ball feel to her character. Her disguise fails to camouflage, her drug taking ends only with catatonia and a brush with death. But the case is resolved and Gran writes strongly about the violence that Katrina leaves in its wake. New Orleans is portrayed as a city inured to death and where murder is only casually investigated, if at all.
It’s great to pick up a book and discover a world of delights. City of the Dead is obviously the first book in a series, with so much of Claire de Witt’s life remaining unresolved at the end. Hopefully the next in the series will be equally strong.