Saturday, December 14, 2013

We're Not in Cabot Cove Anymore, Toto

I was a big fan of Sara Gran's first novel featuring Claire DeWitt, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, which was set in post-Katrina New Orleans. To say that Claire is an unconventional detective would be the height of understatement, and the character was fresh, quirky and very intriguing. Additionally, Gran did an excellent job of portraying the city in the wake of the disaster, and she was particularly good at capturing the lives of the city's young, poverty-stricken African-American males, many of whom have no real prospects and very little hope.

For those who haven't yet encountered Claire, she's a disciple of the French detective, Jacques Silette, author of the book Detection, which changed Claire's life when she discovered the book as a young teenager. Claire later did her apprenticeship in New Orleans under the tutelage of Silette's most outstanding protégé, Constance Darling, and when Constance died, Claire advanced to the position of World's Greatest Detective.

Claire is heavily tattooed; she drinks and takes drugs to excess, as often as not stealing the drugs from the medicine cabinets of unsuspecting friends. To solve her mysteries, she relies on mysticism and dreams as much as on more traditional methods of investigation.

This case begins when a musician named Paul Casablancas is murdered in what appears to be a burglary gone wrong. His home has been invaded; several guitars are missing, and the police are ready to write off the murder as incidental to the burglary that Casablancas apparently interrupted. But Claire has a personal tie to the case; she and Paul were once lovers, and when Paul's widow asks Claire for help, Claire assumes the responsibility of attempting to determine what really happened.

Claire investigates for the next several months with the aid of her new assistant, Claude, a graduate school dropout. In and around the investigation, Claire ruminates on the disappearance years earlier of one of her best friends, a girl named Tracy. As teenagers, Claire, Tracy and a girl named Kelly were inseparable. They discovered Silette's book, Detection together and began investigating mysteries of their own. Then, shortly after they solved a particularly difficult case, Tracy simply disappeared and neither Claire nor Kelly ever heard from her again. Tracy's disappearance was a critical element in the first Claire DeWitt novel and we now get the backstory that fills in many of the blanks.

As the above will doubtless suggest, we're not in Cabot Cove anymore, Toto, and this is not your grandmother's traditional mystery novel. It may not appeal to every fan of crime fiction, but it will certainly intrigue those who are willing to take a chance on a story and a character who are more than a little bit out of the mainstream.

If I have a concern about this book, it would be simply that it suffers a bit by comparison to the first in the series. Claire no longer seems quite as fresh as she did in her first adventure, although this is probably to be expected. More than that, Gran did such a magnificent job with the setting of the first book, that this one inevitably suffers a bit by comparison. The disaster suffered by New Orleans allowed Gran a canvas to work with that simply doesn't exist in San Francisco, although it's a great city in its own right. It also struck me that the supporting cast here is not as interesting and well-drawn as the one in City of the Dead, but these are relatively minor complaints, and I'm looking forward to the third and apparently final installment of the Claire DeWitt trilogy.

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