Sara Gran never read Nancy Drew books as a kid. Surprising, considering that her bold new novel is about a girl detective who grows up to be a private investigator, albeit one who uses the I Ching, omens, dreams and a cornucopia of drugs to help solve cases.
“I read them as an adult,” admits Gran, author of the unique, trippy Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24), which adroitly melds old-school whodunit moves with a punk sensibility. “I got it all backwards. They’re not very absorbing; the pace is so slow by today’s standards. But sociologically they’re interesting.”
Gran’s extraordinary spin on the girl sleuth has gained notice for its originality — grand dame of American mystery fiction Sue Grafton wrote: “This is the first fresh literary voice I’ve heard in years” — and rightly so. Her Claire DeWitt travels to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to track down a client’s missing uncle (named Vic Willing; Gran’s humor is nothing if not dark). The ravaged city where she once lived is shocking enough (“The damage didn’t end. It seemed like it should be over, and then on the next block it was worse: buildings, missing walls, houses pushed by the force of the water into other houses, cars on top of cars, boats on sidewalks, parking lots of cars covered with the chalky white dust the dirty water left”).
But Claire is also haunted by other specters: the death of her mentor Constance, the unsolved disappearance of her childhood best friend. Another, more distant mystery clings, too: the vanishing of the young daughter of her hero, French detective Jacques Silette, whose enigmatic book Détection forms the basis of Claire’s philosophy of investigation, which goes something like this: “The client already knows the solution to his mystery. But he doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t hire a detective to solve his mystery. He hires a detective to prove that his mystery can’t be solved.”
Click here to read the rest of my interview with Gran.