Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is an odd book.

On the one hand, it’s grounded in a grimy, desperate post-Katrina New Orleans. Almost every character in the book is still deeply traumatized by the storm and subsequent flood. New Orleans is painted as corrupt and profoundly dysfunctional. The main character is a substance abusing train wreck, badly messed up even by the standards of the genre.

On the other hand, the main character is apparently a world famous detective, a protege once removed from an almost mythic French detective who wrote a single book called Détection that has a religious fervor about it in the corners of the world where people follow his teachings. Her methods include use of the I Ching, hallucinogenic drugs and analyzing symbols in dreams. In this world, the main character and her teacher and this famous detective work on named cases, like the Case of the Missing Miners or the Case of the Green Parrot, like something out of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.

It’s an odd juxtaposition.

The plot setup is as follows: fresh out of something like a nervous breakdown, Claire DeWitt receives a job offer in New Orleans, a city she hasn’t been back to since her teacher (who was a protege of the famous French Detective) was killed years before. A man presumes that his Uncle, Vic Willing, died in the flood, but wants some closure around that fact since Vic basically just disappeared.

From there, Claire plunges into the world of post-Katrina New Orleans, interacting with the corrupt justice system and foster system and street kids. She is at turns ill-tempered and abrasive, compassionate and empathetic, depressed and nihilistic. She smokes and drinks and does numerous drugs and has symbolic dreams and wanders through the case.

The story is told in an odd, elliptical style, with many short chapters that jump back and forth between current events, musings on the city of New Orleans, memories of Claire’s teacher and upbringing and teen years, and quotations from Détection and interviews with its author. The book lays out a number of potential story hooks but only pursues a couple of them. Possibly these points are picked up in the book’s sequels, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway and The Infinite Blacktop.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is recommended for people who like dark, gritty, meandering fiction and who like (or at least don’t mind) books that have some odd elements that don’t seem to quite fit right together.

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