Thursday, June 09, 2011

Detection, and Clare DeWitt and the City of the Dead

The best book I have read this year is not, as best I can tell, a book that exists. 

"There are no innocent victims.  The victim selects his role as carefully and unconsciously as the policeman, the detective, the client, or the villain.  Each chooses his role and then forgets this, sometimes for many lifetimes, until one comes along who can remind him.  This time you may be the villain or the victim.  The next time your roles may switch.  It is only a role.  Try to remember."

In Sara Gran's new novel Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, there are dozens of excerpts from the legendary work Detection by Jacques Silette, published in 1959.  Claire finds a copy of the book as a young girl and becomes obsessed with it.  Already full of juvenile fantasies about becoming a detective, her copy of Detection and her devotion to it drive her to become one as an adult. 

 "Clues are the most misunderstood part of detection.  Novice detectives think it's about finding clues.  But detection is about recognizing clues."

Gran writes, "Detection was long out of print now and hard to find at any price.  I bought copies of it whenever I came across them in thrift shops or used bookstores that didn't know what they had....Detection was maddening.  The book is notoriously difficult - sometimes nonsensical, always contradictory, repeating the bad news and never repeating the good, never telling you what you want to hear, always just out of reach....Once you've read Silette there's no going back, people say.  Something in you has changed, and you won't be your old self ever again.  No matter how you may want to forget what you've read, you never can."

The central mystery of the novel concerns the disappearence of an assistant district attorney in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Claire is hired by a relative to find him many months after the storm.  Clare searches through the wreckage of New Orleans and her own life to find out what happened to Vic Willing (an interesting choice of name).  (I've been watching David Simon's show on the aftermath of Katrina, Treme, and from that I have all sorts of interesting visual images in my head to go along with what I'm reading.  Gran does a good enough job describing everything but it is really hard to imagine how much damage was done to the city.  I've been there only briefly since it happened and saw a little of the damage.  The show and the book go together well - especially the parts in both about Indians, Mardi Gras,  and New Orleans culture.)

Claire DeWitt is a devotee of this mysterious Jacques Silette.  And in addition to following his teachings, she also uses the five-coin I Ching Manual, Poisonous Orchids of Siberia: A Visionary Interpretation, and a book on the witchcraft practices of Northern Mexico.  Fictional private detectives usually have a sort of generic set of traits (they're cynical, loners, alcoholic, depressed, world-weary - you get the idea) but Claire is sort of a demented shaman as private eye.  And she takes a lot of drugs (bad ones - like smoking embalming fluid) while trying to apply the principles and techniques of Silette's Detection to the mysteries at hand.  Its a fantastic and fascinating new profile for a detective.

This book reminded me a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans.  That book is about a English boy born in Shanghai who is sent back to England when his parents disappear.  The boy dreams of becoming a famous detective, and does so.  As an adult, he returns to war-torn Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents disappearance.  I read this when it was published in 2000 and was unhappy with it.  I took one of my copies of it and re-read some of it after reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead to compare the two and I found that I like it better now.  Both concern an unreal world where detectives are celebrities, feature detectives returning to the scenes of past traumas (places devastated by war or natural disaster) to solve cases, and are not always reliable narrators.

After much Googling, I've learned that Detection is not a real book.  Gran created it for Claire DeWitt.  I pretty much knew that from the start but I really wanted the book to exist.  I read on a blog from her publisher that she may one day compile everything from Detection into a book.  I hope she does.  Until then, we have to wait for the next Claire DeWitt book, of which there are four already planned.  Book two is nearly completed and it is the book I am most eagerly anticipating aside from the continuation of Justin Cronin's The PassageClaire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a great first book in what should be a great series.

Today I obtained a copy of what will have to be my stand-in for Detection, Jurgen Thorwald's The Century of the Detective.  It is a great (but sadly out of print) history of the forensics, or the application of scientific techniques to the investigation of crime.  It was published in German in 1964 and in English in 1965.  I got a rather nice first edition hardcover of this difficult to find book (the few copies floating around out there go for a hundred bucks or so) at a bargain price because it had been listed as 'Century of the Dective' and attracted little notice.  (It may be easier to get this book by buying the two UK editions of it - the first part was published as The Marks of Cain and the second as Dead Men Tell Tales.)  The book is well-known in the forensic community but has fallen out of print and been largely forgotten by everyone else.   It was nominated for an Edgar Award when it was published but it lost to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just finished Caire deWitt's book and found the same result, no "Detection"! Thank you for the research on Miss deWitt's referenced tombs.