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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Claire DeWitt and
the City of the Dead

Sara Gran

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Title: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead
Author: Sara Gran
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 273 pages
Availability: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead - US
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead - UK
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead - Canada
La ville des morts - France
Die Stadt der Toten - Deutschland
  • The first in a series featuring Claire DeWitt

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Our Assessment:

B+ : strong character/development, solid start to a series

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 3/8/2011 Yvonne Zipp
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/6/2011 Marilyn Stasio
Die Zeit . 31/10/2012 Ronald Düker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite her almost-psychic abilities of deduction, hard-drinking Claire is a spiritual heir of Philip Marlowe and other loners solving cold-hearted crimes in warm climates." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Claire is a charmer, but there’s nothing cute about her paranormal visions of a city living in torment." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Dass alles in den verdrängten Schichten des Unbewussten bereits abgelegt ist und dass es durch Wiederholen, Erinnern und Durcharbeiten wieder zum Vorschein gebracht werden kann, gehört zu den Grundannahmen der Psychoanalyse. Und nicht nur in dieser Hinsicht ist Die Stadt der Toten weit mehr als nur ein höchst unterhaltsamer Krimi. Über den erkenntnistheoretischen Gehalt dieses Romans sollte auch Sara Grans Flirt mit dem Irrationalen nicht hinwegtäuschen. (...) Dadurch erweist sich Claire als würdige Erbin von Sherlock Holmes, Sigmund Freud und dem Kunsthistoriker Giovanni Morelli" - Ronald Düker, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Claire DeWitt is a thirty-five year-old PI, supremely confident about her abilities but also deeply damaged and vulnerable -- and apparently willing to do (and capable of doing) what needs be done: so far, in her line of work: "I'd shot four people. I'd killed two. None were is self-defense". She'd hit a low after a hard case, but been recovering at a former PI's 'Spot of Mystery' retreat -- tending goats -- in California when she got the call from New Orleans, someone wanting to hire her. She hadn't been to New Orleans in a while, but she's encouraged to take the job, reminded that: "You have to tie up loose ends sometime".
       Claire DeWitt has a lot of loose ends -- and a case in New Orleans in January 2007, not much more than a year after the flooding-disaster of Katrina that unmoored New Orleans even more extremely, is maybe not ideal situation for her, but she goes ahead and takes the case. She's hired by Leon, whose uncle Vic Willing had disappeared "sometime after August 28, 2005". Vic was a fifty-six-year-old assistant district attorney when he disappeared, having prosecuted: "murderers and rapists and drug dealers" for twenty years. He lived alone, was considered a reasonably straight arrow in ultra-corrupt New Orleans, and was active in the local social scene -- "a lot of clubs, a lot of Mardi Gras stuff". And he simply disappeared around the time of Katrina -- something that was hardly uncommon.
       Given his position, it was likely Vic had some criminal enemies who might have had it in for him. Claire does her thing and slowly gets at the truth -- about Vic, who there was more to than she initially was told, and about some of the things that happened in the aftermath of Katrina. It's a reasonably decent mystery, complete with mis-leads that Claire works her way through; dogged and determined, she eventually puts all the pieces in place.
       More interesting already is the backdrop, a New Orleans that is still broken, and all the characters she encounters trying to piece or hold, in some way, their lives together -- which, in many cases, was already a challenge even without the uprooting Katrina brought with it. From making her rental truck fit in -- pristine, it stands out way too much -- to the down and out and criminal elements she deals with, Claire largely blends right into this oh so damaged city. The ease with which she shares a drink or drugs with many of those she encounters also repeatedly confirms how she is also just barely hanging on.
       Claire comes with a lot of backstory, which she shares in dribs and drabs; she's carrying a lot of baggage. Raised in Brooklyn, she bonded with two girls, Kelly and Tracy, who became like sisters. They all had caught the detecting bug, their bible the great French detective Jacques Silette's 1959 book, Détection. The book remains Claire's totem; she always has a copy with her -- "I was superstitious about going anywhere without it, even though I knew most of it by heart now" -- and encountering others with it (as she also does here) is always a sign ..... But when they were in their teens Tracy disappeared, a vanishing that haunts Claire to this day -- as it does Kelly, who also became a detective, but never escaped Brooklyn and never escaped that one case, of trying to find her lost friend: "She opened a detective agency, but it was just a side project to fund her search".
       Silette's life was also marked by a disappearance, and a case he couldn't solve, his young daughter having vanished on a trip to the United States in 1973, the two-year-old Belle apparently kidnapped. And while that mystery only affects Claire second-hand, another one hit much closer: the woman she apprenticed to -- in New Orleans, starting in 1994 --, the great detective Constance Darling, was murdered some three years after Claire started learning from her.
       All these unsolved cases continue to haunt Claire. Silette and his book, and Constance's approach to investigation, mark her to this day -- and the quasi-mystical approach shows in her work. It's a bit of a stretch, at times, this philosophical take on mysteries -- and everything is a mystery -- but for the most part Gran presents it convincingly enough. And the wise words are often insightful enough:

     "The thing about the truth," Frank said after a while. "It's never just what you want it to be, is it ?"
       The case at the center of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is solid enough, if relatively unexceptional, but the steps (and risks) Gran has Claire take are reasonably exciting -- helped by the local color and characters. (Claire also shows how connected and competent she is in tying up the case beyond just solving it, in seeing to it that those most affected by it get what they need, showing she's invested considerably beyond merely cashing her fee.) But really this is just the opening installment of what is obviously meant to be a series, a first glimpse of a character and of the mysteries which have determined her life and which remain unsolved. The loss of her friend, the murder of her mentor -- and, presumably, the tragedy suffered by the detective whom she venerates -- still engage her, and constantly circle back into her present-day. Gran sketches an intriguing childhood for Claire and offers glimpses from her career, but it feels like she's just setting the groundwork. There's enough to satisfy -- and more than enough to leave the reader curious about the rest, making for a clever hook to the coming series.
       Solid all around -- though leaning a bit too heavily/annoyingly on the mystical (down to dreams and rolls of the dice) -- Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead introduces a strong and appealing (with and despite all her flaws, presented front and center) protagonist and makes for a very good start to a promising series.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 November 2019

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Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead: Reviews: Sara Gran: Other books by Sara Gran under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Sara Gran was born in 1971.

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© 2019-2023 the complete review

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