‘Claire DeWitt’ is mix of mystical, hard-boiled

“Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Sara Gran

Suppose Nancy Drew had been raised by indifferent parents on the mean streets of Brooklyn, liked getting stoned, got seduced by the occult and was haunted by her failure to solve the childhood disappearance of a close friend. She might have grown up to be a lot like Claire DeWitt, self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective.

Like Nancy, Claire views detective work not as a job but as a calling. Her first adventure, “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead,” is a mystery story, of course, but it is also an exploration of the nature of mysteries.

“The client already knows the solution to his mystery,” Claire declares. “But he doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t hire the detective to solve his mystery. He hires a detective to prove that his mystery can’t be solved.”

The opening of the novel, the first in a new series by Sara Gran, finds Claire closing in on 40 and recovering from a nervous breakdown. She is a devotee of dead French Detective Jacques Silette, author of “Detection,” a strange and obscure book she discovered in childhood. Silette’s book is filled with lines like this: “The detective will never be thanked for revealing the truth. He will be despised, doubted, abhorred, spat upon. ... His only reward will be the awful, unbearable truth itself.”

Claire carries the book everywhere, the way some people carry the Bible. Sometimes Silette speaks to her in dreams.

Hired by a client whose uncle, a Louisiana prosecutor, disappeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Claire reluctantly returns to New Orleans, one of the many cities where she once lived. Gran, a resident of New Orleans when the hurricane struck, paints a grim portrait of the city, one she believes was ruined not just by wind and water but also by violence and the rot of corruption.

“People kill each other everywhere,” Claire says. “The difference was that in New Orleans, no one tried to stop them.”

As she works her missing person case, she sifts through files and interrogates sources, including bums and murderous street toughs; but she gets most of her clues from intuition, omens and drug-induced dreams.

She is also a tough customer. “I’d shot four people,” she confides. “I’d killed two. None were in self-defense.”

The novel, Gran’s fourth, is difficult to categorize, offering a strangely appealing mix of the mystical and the hard-boiled. The book is beautifully written in a tight, quirky style that distinguishes Gran as one of the more original writers working today.

The story is bleak. Every character, including the heroine, is drowning in sadness, and several of them caution the reader not to expect a happy ending.

Claire finally solves her missing person case. One could expect nothing less from the world’s greatest detective. But the greatest puzzle in the novel is the unsolvable mystery of the heroine’s own tortured life.

“Nothing ever really ends,” Claire tells us. “The fat lady never really sings her last song. She only changes costume and goes on to the next show. It’s just a matter of when you stop watching.”

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Bruce DeSilva is the author of “Rogue Island,” which recently won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best first novel.

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Online:

http://www.saragran.com/Sara-Gran/Sara-Gran.html

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