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.