‘A crime novel unlike any other you might have read’ – City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Sara Gran is one hell of an interesting writer. A few years back, Come Closer, a sort of odd psychological horror novel was published to critical acclaim and she followed that with Dope, a sort of historical mystery novel set in the 40s and 50s in which (as she described in an interview with us on its release) ‘all the minor characters… the bums, the addicts, but most of all The Girls… were made major’. Now she’s back with City of the Dead, the first of a proposed crime series, and the first thing you need to know is – do not approach this the way you would approach the launch of a more typical crime series. There is no grizzled hack, no rogue cop, no ageing rule-breaker fighting bureaucracy on the one hand and searching for some almost other worldly serial killer on the other. One of the characters in City of the Dead says,

‘If anybody looking for that kind of story, the kind where every little thing gets tied up in the end, they best stay on the train and go right through to Texas.’

It’s good advice. Sara Gran is a writer for whom expectations are there to be overturned.

Claire DeWitt is our guide to City of the Dead, a detective, but a detective unlike any you might of met before (outside of Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, perhaps). We meet her as she is hired by a Leon Salvatore, a man who is looking to find out what happened to his uncle Vic Willing who went missing in the days after Katrina hit New Orleans. As it’s the eponymous city of the dead, New Orleans plays a big part in City of the Dead, from the places through the food to the crime (but you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a different post-Katrina New Orleans if you’ve been following David Simon’s loving, sepia toned Treme – Gran’s New Orleans is closer to the Baltimore of The Wire, a place so hard one character’s wife leaves him to return to Detroit because there is ‘less crime’). DeWitt is the product of two teachers, one a French detective called Silette whose book Detection she considers her Bible, and the other, Constance Darling, a former lover of Silette, who was killed some time before City of the Dead opens and who told DeWitt:

‘There are two kinds of detectives… The first are those that decide to be a detective. The second are those that have no choice at all.’

‘Constance,’ DeWitt tells us

‘was a detective since the day she was born. I like to think I was too, even though I had a long, bumpy road between my first bottle of fingerprint dust and my PI union card. But then again, so have most of us.’

Between them, they have forged Claire DeWitt, a detective for whom clues offer themselves up, as if from the ether.

‘Clues are the most misunderstood part of detection. Novice detectives think it’s about finding clues. But detective work is about recognizing clues.’

DeWitt, then, is a detective whose route to solving a mystery is one that takes her via the I Ching and playing Virgilian lots with Silette’s Detection. There are Bolano-esque dream sequences and a fair bit of meta-ish unpicking of detective genre expectations. She tells Leon, for instance,

‘At some point in the development of the detective/client relationship, it’s natural for the client to want to fire the PI. It’s part of the process, and that’s okay.’

But there are also more fantastical elements to proceedings, a sense of a world beyond this one, a touch of Kelly Link, perhaps, by way of something unique to Gran herself. She tells us of an attempt to find her friend who went missing as a teenager (there is a whole subplot about DeWitt and two friends that feels a little like ‘what would have happened to Charlie’s Angels if they hadn’t met Charlie?’):

‘Tracy’s disappearance, the lack of her, became our world. Our lives revolved around the hole where Tracy had been. We applied Silette’s principles of Detection to every facet of it. We threw ourselves into the case full-time. We fingerprinted her room, her clothes, her books. We broke into the school office and got her records. We tried to talk to her teachers, and when they didn’t want to, we found ways of making them. We followed up on every matchbook we found in her schoolbag, every note on a scrap of paper, every bird that flew overhead, every flower that bloomed. Omens were all around. Clues were everywhere.’

There is also a nice, seedy, dissolute quality to Claire (she smokes dope, drinks too much, isn’t afraid to put her lips around a cigarette recently marinaded in embalming fluid) that she feels is a fundamental part of her process. If there is a criticism to level at City of the Dead, it is one of cutting the reader some slack, in a way. This doesn’t feel like the first entry in a series, it feels more like the third, as if there have been previous books that we’ve yet to see. But that just goes to demonstrate, I think, how fully formed Claire DeWitt is already. It’s also worth noting that the randomness of DeWitt’s process – finding answers in business cards accidentally stuck to a restaurant bill, on one occasion – might be a hard sell to those people who want crime fiction to follow very prescriptive rules, but again, this is the kind of problem those readers will just have to deal with because it’s part of what makes Gran so interesting. I for one will be looking out for the next instalment (and keeping an eye out for the proposed TV series as well).

Any Cop?: A crime novel unlike any other you might have read, and a treat that is, like most of the best things in life, not for everyone.

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