Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about a mystery book group meeting. The group is still going strong and has now read 42 books in, I think, 5 1/2 years. We were sad to see a couple members leave a few years ago, but happy to get some cool new members as well. The book discussions are as interesting as ever. This time around we discussed Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran. Feelings in the group ranged from mixed to very positive, with my own take on the more positive side. There were moments early on when I wasn’t sure I would take to the book or not, but by the end, she had won me over. It’s a fabulous portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans, first of all. Gran shows how effective fiction can be at capturing complicated truths about a place and an event. I also admired Claire DeWitt very much. People in the group commented on what a difficult person she is in the novel, and I was taken by surprise at this. I saw, when I thought about it more, that she is indeed a pretty nasty person in a lot of ways, but as I was reading that didn’t even occur to me. I got so caught up in the first person voice and got used to seeing things from her perspective that I didn’t step back to evaluate what kind of head I had been inhabiting. DeWitt is a character in the hard-boiled detective tradition, and so of course she has many flaws and a prickly personality, but she is still a great person to spend some time with (mediated, of course, by the pages of a book).

The novel is also a commentary on mysteries themselves. DeWitt is a disciple of the philosopher-detective Jacques Silette, whose book Détection she quotes from liberally and which is full of enigmatic statements such as

There are no innocent victims…. The victim selects his role as carefully and unconsciously as the policeman, the detective, the client, or the villain. Each chooses his role and then forgets this, sometimes for many lifetimes, until one comes along who can remind him.This time you may be the villain or the victim. The next time your roles may switch.

It is only a role. Try to remember.

This is the part of the book I wasn’t so sure about at first. Some of Silette’s ideas are interesting, but others, such as in the quotation above, didn’t make much sense to me. I wasn’t sure to what extent we are even supposed to make sense of such statements. There is a mystical, unrealistic aspect to the book that left me feeling uneasy, as I didn’t quite know what to do with it. But, at the same time, the book explores an idea that I liked very much: that life is full of mysteries and that mysteries are everywhere, only we don’t usually see them as such. What goes on in a mystery novel is only one small part of the constant flow of the mysterious all around us. To solve a case is to put artificial boundaries around the vast unknown.

I liked this one enough to want to read the next in the series, which was recently released. Next up for the mystery group, though, is The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani, a book and an author I’d never heard of before.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

  1. I haven’t heard of this author but after reading your review I certainly think I’ll give at least this first one a read. I like mysteries that have something a little more than just straight detection about them.

    I was particularly interested in what you said about the way in which the author ‘shows how effective fiction can be at capturing complicated truths about a place and an event’. This is an idea that is being floated on the historical fiction course I’m doing at the moment. The discussion there being about how sometime fiction can give a better idea of what actually happened in historical periods than an academic study can.

    • Alex — I definitely like mysteries with more than straight detection as well. When they take on the subjects of mysteries and detection themselves, I like them even better. About fiction capturing places and events, surely it helps to have the imagination involved to understand a time period. Good nonfiction can do this as well, of course, but it is fiction’s forte, surely?

  2. Funny, I didn’t see DeWitt as nasty, either, just a bit full of herself, which I saw as a mask for bitter insecurities. I think one of the reasons all the mysteriousness of the book worked for me is that after having read Neil Gaiman’s story “Bitter Grounds,” I just expect New Orleans to be mysterious like that.

  3. Oh even though I am not a mystery reader, you have me intrigued!

  4. My mystery group read one of Sara Gran’s books years ago and I think most people didn’t like it much because it wasn’t a straight mystery. I remember thinking that I liked the book not for the mystery but for the characters. I didn’t realize she had a series now so I’m up for checking it out!

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