Randomly picked this up on a $2 shelf at a great local bookstore. Aside from Sherlock I don't read a lot of mysteries, but the summary on the back caught my interest:
Claire DeWitt believes she is the world’s greatest PI, even if few agree with her. A one-time teen detective in Brooklyn, she is a follower of the esoteric French detective Jacques Silette, whose mysterious handbook Détection inspired Claire’s unusual practices. Claire also has deep roots in New Orleans, where she was mentored by Silette’s student the brilliant Constance Darling—until Darling was murdered. When a respected DA goes missing she returns to the hurricane-ravaged city to find out why. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a knockout start to a bracingly original new series.
Overall, I thought it was pretty damn good. It takes place in the years following Hurricane Katrina, and it's very honest about the horrors of being in New Orleans during and directly after the storm, which I think is massively important- especially because people seem to be forgetting how hellish it was. Here's a pretty intense passage from the book of a teenager talking about the storm:
"So I go down to the water. I go down and it's a fucking mess down there. I mean, really a mess, because garbage and shit is washing up from everywhere. And it's hot, and people is acting crazy, screaming and crying. And there's -- fuck. There's bodies everywhere. I hadn't thought -- I mean, I thought I'd go down there and it'd be like some sailor shit, pulling people out of the ocean. But it was --- people was crying, people was hungry, people was all sunburned, being on their roofs for days. People was looking through the dead people looking for their kids and shit. It was like when in church, when they talk about hell? Like it being hot and dead people all over and shit? Like your worst nightmare, but it ain't a dream anymore. That's what it was like."
It doesn't say anywhere in the book that she interviewed real-life people, but when you read the dialogue, it's so... real. I hope she did.
The story has elements of the supernatural/metaphysical, but it's not at all cliché; there are references to Daoism ("The clue that can be named is not the eternal clue... The mystery that can be named is not the eternal mystery."), the I-Ching (which Claire consults when she's feeling stuck) and visions brought on by psychedelic substances. Détection, which is basically Claire's Bible, offers strange and mystifying passages:
"The mystery is not solved by the use of fingerprints or suspects or the identification of weapons," Silette wrote. "These things serve only to trigger the detective's memory. The detective and the client, the victim and the criminal-- all already know the solution to the mystery. They need only to remember it, and recognize it when it appears."
And of course New Orleans itself offers up supernatural imagery almost automatically. I really love the way Sara Gran was thinking outside the box when she wrote this book, but I think that the supernatural/metaphysical aspects could have been made a little more... solid. I don't really know how to put it- they're obviously vital to the story and yet I don't feel like they are explained well enough or connected often enough in a satisfying way.
It has a somewhat dreamy quality- the story is punctuated by short flash backs, once brought on while smoking a laced blunt with a street kid- and bits and pieces of Détection float through her mind and through the chapters. It's a very dark, melancholy sort of dreaminess, which I think helps the reader feel like they're actually there, walking through 'the City of the Dead'.
I thought the author did an excellent job of painting a picture of New Orleans without going overboard with the visual details- what she does describe serves to demonstrate how bleak and hopeless life in New Orleans is for many people. The street kids, the other detectives she talks to, and her memories of Constance are vivid in my mind, though I have trouble picturing Claire herself- I feel like her current physical appearance isn't really described, but I guess that doesn't really matter that much.
At first I had a hard time getting interested in the main mystery (the missing DA) but when I got about halfway through, things got more interesting. What really got my attention though, was the mystery of Claire herself. There are hints at Claire's past- a childhood friend gone missing, flashbacks of her strange parents and her training with Constance- that I'm dying to learn more about. I'm guessing the investigations into those mysteries are going to be woven throughout the series.
Anyway, I enjoyed this book enough to recommend it to anyone who cares for mysteries, social justice, or the city of New Orleans. I appreciate its honesty and I love Claire's attitude- she's gritty and clever but she has vulnerable moments and she's not unrealistically witty. Claire is hardened by her experiences but still has empathy. She can see through the rough exterior cultivated by the kids she is questioning and imagine what they would have been like had they not been brought up in the streets. And she seems to get along with them. They're all outcasts, all have tough exteriors, all have insecurities and mysteries of their own. She seems like a tough broad that could actually exist.
favorite things- the way Claire interacts with the unfortunate youths she meets and the way she treats homeless people like equals; the metaphysical aspects; it made me want to learn more about New Orleans; it has an important message; and I loved the ending!
not so favorite things- it could be kind of scatterbrained at times in general and especially with the metaphysical stuff and I didn't get into the main mystery right away... but that's it.
I wasn't sure I'd get all that into this one but after finishing it, I'm actually really excited to read the other books in this series!