It’s tempting to put Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt books in the slacker noir category, a term I think was coined by Chris Wade at Slate in 2015 when Inherent Vice came out. That film played like a more paranoid and overtly political version of The Big Lebowski. Claire DeWitt is certainly on par with those films comedically. In Bohemian Highway she has many open cases, one called the Case of the Missing Miniature Horses. She makes a note to “investigate equine suicide.” A bleaker joke than you might find in those films, but she can hold her own with Doc and the Dude. She is in a similar druggy haze throughout the books. What the DeWitt books have that those films don’t, is a better sense of what Claire is medicating herself against. The main case in Bohemian Highway is The Case of the Kali Yuga. The Kali Yuga, as Gran paints it, is the age of corruption (I’m sure that I don’t fully understand it). It is a corrupt age Claire lives and detects in and seeks to anesthetize herself to.
The two main threads of the story are, like City of the Dead the first entry in the series, a current case in her role as the self styled greatest living detective and one from her punk teenage years when she solved crimes with her two best friends Kelly and Tracy. The overarching mystery of the series is the disappearance of Tracy which broke Claire and Kelly. In the present she is hired by the sister of an ex-boyfriend, Paul, who has been murdered (this is The Case of the Kali Yuga). In the past. Claire, Kelly and Tracy investigate the disappearance of an acquaintance in The Case of the End of the World. Both take Claire to some dark places. There are reasons she is depressed. Despite its humor, there is a edge to the darkness in the DeWitt books that places them closer to the bleakness of an Ellroy or a Lehane.
Claire’s biggest influence in the books is the fictional Jaques Sillette, author of Détection, perhaps best described as a Zen Existentialist detective manual. Sillette constantly reminds his detectives that to seek the truth and to solve crimes will isolate them. No one wants the actual truth of their cases. He offers scant hope for happiness in the Detective life. For him “happiness...is the temporary result of denying the knowledge one already has.” His attitude towards mystery is that the detective must let herself be solved by her mysteries, for even when a case is cracked they will remain. It reminded me of CS Lewis’s bit about prayer not changing the mind of God, rather it changes the praying person (a formulation which works whether or not God exists).
There is a lot of humor in the book. Considering its bleakness there has to be. Behind the confidence of the unreliable narrator is a person who is attempting numb herself completely. She very nearly numbs herself out of existence. But the cases she pursues provide a purpose of sorts.
This is my second pass through the DeWitt books. Having reread City of the Dead and Bohemian Highway in relatively quick succession, I think I’ve pinpointed what drew me to them so powerfully last year. There is the humor, of course. And the absolute clear-eyed look at the darkness of the world. The honesty about depression. And the offer of some hope, faint though it may be. But what I love the most is the uncertainty. Near the end of The City of the Dead a character says, “That’s the thing about the truth, it’s never just what you want it to be, is it?” No one really wants their mysteries solved in DeWitt’s world; they want comforting fantasies. Certainty, even false certainty, is much more comfortable than learning to live with mystery. As much as she may try to deny it, this extends to Claire herself. This is what makes the books as wise as they are entertaining.
Gran as an author jumped way up my list of canonical authors last year when I read all six of her novels for the first time. I only put works in my canon if I’ve read them at least twice. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is definitely in and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway could well join it with further rereading.
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