“I hugged myself against the cold. The fog of the Kali Yuga. Paul deserved so much better. He deserved a grand theft, a jewel heist, a murder by a crazed fan. Paul deserved to die in a duel, to tumble down the Himalayas, to be mauled by wildcats on the Serengeti. Instead, some asshole wanted his guitars, shot Paul, and took them. He should have been killed in a high-speed chase in a Lamborghini, poisoned by a duchess, taken out with the candlestick in the conservatory.
Or he could have just lived.”
Claire DeWitt is currently the greatest detective in the world, a rank she achieved after the death of her mentor Constance Starling. After the events of The Case of the Green Parrot, related to us in book form by Sara Gran as Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Claire has left New Orleans and returned to San Francisco. It doesn’t take long, though, for trouble to rear its ugly head once again, as her old flame, Paul Casablancas, turns up dead in what appears to be a burglary of his house. Paul was the one Claire never really got over, and the death hits her doubly hard as she introduced him to his future wife. No one really hires Claire to look into this case, but she does it anyway, adding The Case of the Kali Yuga to her ongoing workload (alongside the decidedly lower-stakes Case of the Missing Miniature Horses).
Interspersed with Claire’s return into the Bay Area rock music world, we also get the story of young Claire and her best friend Tracy solving another mystery in post-punk ’80s New York City, The Case of the End of the World. A young party girl has gone missing in the sleazy underworld of the East Village, and only these two plucky teenagers stand between her and total oblivion.
Probably the most distinctive aspect of the Claire DeWitt novels, apart from its main character’s heroic drug regimen that puts her in the league of Doc Sportello and various Philip K. Dick protagonists, is the element brought to the text by Claire’s bible of sorts, Détection. Written by a French detective named Jacques Silette long before the events of the story, the book essentially changes everyone who comes into contact with it into a P.I. Andray, a major character in City of the Dead, has become a detective, and it’s this book that changes the lives of Claire and Tracy as teens in addition to about half the cast of the story. Gran goes back to Silette quotations throughout the story of Bohemian Highway, sometimes for an ironic counterpoint, sometimes as a way to dig into Claire’s dogged character.
I love this idea, that becoming a detective is kind of a curse, a transmitted infection not unlike the Cthulhu Mythos transmits madness in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. If the Claire DeWitt series was ever to follow another great California detective story like Inherent Vice into the world of film, my preferred director would be Wes Anderson, who’d make great use of this device. I think he’d also get a lot of mileage out of the idea that there are various schools of detection (the Silettians being only one warring faction), and that detectives seem to occupy a much bigger part of the public consciousness than they do in our world. Detective quarterly magazines are still popular, and detective shows are seemingly always on television. It’s a fun updating of the pulp world in which the original hardboiled types rose to the surface back in the 1920s.
I ended up being a little perplexed after the previous outing in Gran’s series, as I thought she maybe dwelled a little bit too much on the wreckage, both mental and physical, left in New Orleans after Katrina. I have no such reservations with the followup, as this book is all-around great. Like a true noir PI, Claire moves through the various social strata of San Francisco and environs with ease, and various entertaining new (and hopefully recurring) characters are added to her world. I especially liked “the poker chip guy”, who can ascertain the provenance of poker chips almost by magic if given a pie first, and the Red Detective, a Southern guy who lives in the redwood forest outside the city and dispenses cryptic PI wisdom and fortunes.
The scenes set in the 1980s are also a delight, as the well-worn worlds of “girl detective” and “punk nihilism” collide with a lot of entertaining parallels. The descriptions of an infinity of grotty punk bars and sex clubs are appropriately gross, and The Case of the End of the World might be even more satisfyingly solved than the modern-day mystery.
I’m really looking forward to future instalments of the Claire DeWitt series, and heartily recommend this one, even if like me you didn’t love City of the Dead.