Librarians’ Best Books of 2011: Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Robin Nesbitt, technical services director, Columbus Metropolitan Library, loves Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Houghton Harcourt).

What We Said:

This is not to be missed‚ Claire is a moody, hip, and meticulous investigator. Gran (Dope; Come Closer) builds an addictive sense of anticipation with a fantastical frame. Alternately gritty and dreamy, this would appeal to those who liked Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and readers of Charlie Huston (e.g., The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death). Highly recommended.

What She Says:

RobinNesbittPhotoCropped437 Librarians Best Books of 2011: Sara Grans Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead Best books are a matter of individual preference no matter the authority, and while I appreciate the best-of lists that come out every year, I wish that more would ignore so-called genre labels and consider above all else great writing, great story, and fulfilling characters. Best lists that showcase only literary fiction do a disservice to writers and readers everywhere. The old adage stands true‚ make no apology for what you like to read. To whit, one of my favorites of 2011 could be classified as a crime novel, but labeling it as such feels too narrow for such a great book.

Private investigator: the phrase connotes stereotypical images of a hard-drinking loner living on the edge but dedicated to solving the mystery. Although I’m a huge fan of PI novels, I’m always on the lookout for books that turn this stereotype on its head. We are lucky these days because writers continue to challenge the status quo and give us new material to feed our imaginations. Which brings me to my pick: Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

Claire is not your average detective. While dealing with her own demons, she gets a call to work a case in the city where she grew up, New Orleans. This is post-Katrina New Orleans, and Claire hasn’t been back since the death of her mentor, Constance Darling. Leon Salvatore wants the best to find his missing uncle, New Orleans Assistant District Attorney Vic Willing, and so he calls in Claire.

Other reviews have called this an off-kilter or funky noir; I have to concur. There is as much Zen-like psychological musing as there is crime solving in these pages. Claire is inspired by a famous French detective and the I Ching in equal parts, so to say her methods are not by the book is an understatement. She decides not to interview anyone and just play it by ear.

Take this approach, mix in aGranCover200New Librarians Best Books of 2011: Sara Grans Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead group of local street kids and homeless guys, and you begin to wonder if Claire knows what she’s doing. But as Claire says, The client already knows the solution to his mystery‚Ķ. 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.”

Crime novel readers who appreciate great characters and a setting that serves as a character will be drawn into this book. If you read this and like it, I would also suggest a few other crime novels that are engaging in an atypical manner: Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, S.J. Bolton’s Now You See Me, to name just a few. For her part, Gran has done a great job giving us an unconventional heroine, and I hope we see more of Claire and her inner demons.

Robin’s Favorite Passage:

There are two kind of detectives, Constance told me a long time ago. We were in her library in her home in the Garden District. The first are those that decide to be a detective. The second are those that have no choice at all.

 

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.

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