Ostensibly, the story is this: Claire DeWitt is hired to find out what’s happened to a well-known prosecutor who’s disappeared from New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina.
As the story progresses, we begin to realize that Claire’s past is a tangle of unsolved mysteries.
Frequent flashbacks highlight mysteries originating in Claire’s girlhood, the disappearance of one of her two closest friends and her painful alienation from the other… and more recently, the random murder of Claire’s beloved mentor, Constance Darling, in New Orleans a few years ago.
Claire’s mysteries add to the story’s complexity and start to fill out her unusual and somewhat mystical backstory.
But the darkest, most compelling mystery, in my mind, turns out to be the city itself.
I haven’t been to New Orleans, neither before nor after ‘the flood,’ so I can only take the word of the various reviewers who vouch for the painful authenticity of Sara Gran’s depiction.
In an article by David W. Brown in the Atlantic online, Gran explained her ‘method’:
Setting is the most important character in a book,” she says. “Place is the most important part. I tried with New Orleans, and I tried and I tried and I just wasn’t getting it right. And I realized that I had to write about it from the perspective of somebody who didn’t really get it. I mean, New Orleans is still a very mysterious place to me. And if you’re not from there you’re always an outsider. So for me, the key to making New Orleans work was admitting how little I know and admitting how little I understand.”
[Gran’s] years in the city—not as a tourist, but as a taxpayer—make the novel work. Gran’s New Orleans hits every note expected, with an unexpected nuance that only comes with a 504 area code and a degree in cultural anthropology.
So, if you haven’t already discovered her, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is an exceptional introduction to this moody sleuth.