Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Beach and Public Transports Books, Crime Fiction, Gran Sara, Polar, TBR20 > Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran (2011). French title: La cité des morts. Translated by Claire Breton.

The City of the Dead by Sara Gran is the first instalment of her crime fiction series featuring her female PI heroin, Claire DeWitt. When the book opens, we’re in 2007, Claire is in California and Leon calls her to ask to come to New Orleans and investigate the disappearance of his uncle, Vic Willing. He vanished during the flood due to the floodwall failure around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the region. Everybody assumes that Vic drowned and that his corpse never reappeared. His nephew is not at ease with this version and wants to dig further.

Claire accepts the job and reluctantly comes back to a city she left ten years before. She used to live in New Orleans and her mentor Constance was training her to become a PI. Claire grew up in a decrepit townhouse in Brooklyn. She fell into mystery solving at a young age when she and her girlfriends Tracy and Kelly found a book called Détection by Jacques Silette. It’s an essay written by a French PI who discusses investigating and solving mysteries. This book is closer to a sort of Tao Te Ching of crime fiction than to a basic Crime Solving 101. It became Claire’s bible. And Constance had been tutored by Jacques Silette himself. That’s Claire’s professional foundations.

Claire accepts the case, flies back to New Orleans to find out what happened to Vic Willing and to face her personal demons. Coming back to New Orleans, a city she left after Constance’s violent death, is painful to Claire. And she comes back to a city traumatized and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and its consequences.

Her investigation will lead her in various areas of the city. She will take us to neighborhoods literally destroyed and full of buildings in ruins. She will show us the incredible level of criminality of New Orleans, its poverty but also its strong culture and traditions. Claire takes us to what looks like a Third World country. Sara Gran used to live in New Orleans. She depicts a city with no decent public services and gangrened by corruption. Institutions don’t work together, the police and the judicial system can’t coordinate their efforts and a lot of crimes remain unpunished. Killings are common occurrences. Arm and drug trafficking are almost in the open. Eighteen months after Katrina’s passage, the reconstruction of the city has barely started in some areas and people are in as bad a shape as the buildings in ruin. Some lost everything and lived through terrible times. We all saw on TV how poorly the US government handled this major catastrophe at the time. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the world a rich country that had tons of money for war but none to rescue its poorest citizen.

For this reader, this aspect of The City of the Dead was the most interesting part of the book. I was not really interested in the outcome of the investigation. And in the end, I was disappointed by the motive behind Vic Willing’s murder. I thought it was a banal device for a crime fiction writer.

And then, there’s the whole esoteric/mystic side of Claire DeWitt. I was bored by the unintelligible quotes from the fictional Détection. Silette’s book sounds like ominous prophecies by Nostradamus written by a fortune cookie author mated with French intellectualism of the 1970s. At least that how it looked to me and it totally put me off. See what I mean:

“Happiness is the temporary result of denying the knowledge one already has,” Silette wrote. “Once one knows what one knows—once one knows the solution to his mysteries—happiness is besides the point. But in rare cases, something much better can bloom.”

I really don’t see the attraction or the need for this pseudo-intellectual thread. I’d be very happy to read other readers’ thoughts about this.

Last but not least, the style. *Sigh* Clearly, Chandler ruined me. I’m way too picky and too demanding when it comes to crime fiction. I thought that Gran’s style was good but not exceptional. I read the French translation and while it’s well done for today’s French readers, I wonder if it will keep. The translator chose to use very contemporary slang to translate the voices of New Orleans’s criminals and outcast. Expressions like truc de ouf or verbs like kiffer may sound outdated in a decade. The translation will sound as weird as the one of Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes. Slang is difficult to translate and it’s like fashion, its trends don’t last.

In the end, I didn’t like The City of the Dead very much, mostly because of the weird Silette cult. No second book with Claire DeWitt is in my future.

Something must be wrong with me because this book was in the following literary prizes: Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel (2012), Hammett Prize Nominee (2011), Shamus Award Nominee for Best First PI Novel (2012), Deutscher Krimi Preis for 1. Platz International (2013), Meilleur polar des lecteurs de Points (2016)

If you’ve read it, please let me know what you thought about it.

  1. January 6, 2018 at 10:38 pm

    Here are my thoughts. https://www.exurbanis.com/archives/9720#claire
    Not quite as negative as yours, but it’s not a series that I intend to return to.

    Like

    • January 6, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      Thanks for the link
      What did you think about the ending? I thought it wasn’t really creative.

      Like

  2. January 7, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    Ah, shame that you didn’t get on too well with this one, especially since we both enjoyed what she had to say at the Quais du Polar. She came highly recommended by other authors, but I have to admit that I wasn’t that taken with the spiritual side of things (although I think that the pseudo-intellectual claptrap is possibly satire to show that Claire isn’t always thinking straight and can be pretentious). But you are right, I read it mainly for the New Orleans setting, and haven’t been that keen to follow Claire DeWitt to other locations.

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    • January 7, 2018 at 10:49 pm

      I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who didn’t like the Silette quoting thing. It could be to explain Claire’s unusual investigation methods but I don’t think the writer has to justify her character’s behavior. Look at Adamsberg. He’s special and Fred Vargas doesn’t feel the need to develop a theory around his investigation methodology.

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