"Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway": Noir for a new age

Sara Gran's mystical, hardboiled detective Claire DeWitt is back, and Carol Monda is the narrator born to voice her

Published July 11, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Fate, dark and implacable, has always played a role in noir fiction. People meet, actions are taken and a vast machinery is set in motion, the characters carried along by it more or less against their wills. This makes the hard-boiled detective novel one of the more mystically disposed genres, as unlikely as that may sound to the casual observer. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until a sleuth came along whose expertise was essentially irrational.

Claire Dewitt recognizes a clue by the weird chills she gets when she first encounters it, and she makes some of her most important deductions in dreams and under the influence of mind-altering substances. Claire, or another PI much like her, might have been inevitable -- or maybe it just takes a writer as good as Sara Gran to make her seem that way.

Gran's "Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway" is the second Claire DeWitt novel, set in San Francisco, the city of Dashiell Hammett, where Claire lives and works. (The first book in the series, "Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead" was set in post-Katrina New Orleans.) When she was a girl growing up in Brooklyn, Claire and two friends found a book under enigmatic circumstances. "Détection," by a Frenchman named Jacques Silette, is the Tao Te Ching of investigation, full of evocative koans like "The client doesn't hire a detective to solve his mystery. He hires a detective to prove that his mystery can't be solved." Claire would become the protégé of one of Silette's protégés, but her best friend, Tracy -- by Claire's account every bit as much a natural-born detective as herself -- vanished from a subway platform, never to be seen again. (Tracy's fate is the one great unsolved mystery in Claire's life, and an ongoing theme in the series.)

Claire may take prescriptions from a Chinese herbal doctor, seek advice from the elusive forest-dwelling Red Detective in the Oakland hills and rub shoulders with a lama, but she's as hard-bitten as any dime-store paperback dick, and in this particular adventure, her bite gets even harder. An ex-boyfriend of Claire's, a local musician, is killed -- apparently during a burglary, but Claire has her doubts. The case forces her to take a long look at her own past, not a view she in any way welcomes. This precipitates some truly spectacular drug use, and such splendidly black, deadpan wisecracks as "You don't think I'm a very nice person, and you're right about that."

Anyone can "do" a hard-boiled PI voice, as Garrison Keillor proves once a week, but it takes an exceptional actor to truly inhabit such a character without stooping to camp. Carol Monda might have been born to narrate the Claire DeWitt novels (and in Gran's fictional universe, destiny is not a force to be trifled with). Her tight-jawed contralto is capable of conveying subtle vibrations of grief, yearning, pity, self-loathing and amusement, all emotions Claire masks with a manner that could out-stoic Sgt. Joe Friday.

This is the novel where we get to probe deeper into Claire's character, to see how the source of her heroism is also the wellspring of her despair. But there are also such deliciously absurd bits of side business as "The Case of the Missing Miniature Horses," about a dwindling herd of animals that Claire suspects of committing suicide out of shame at having been "shrunk" by their owner. Claire gives every job a title like that, just as she always refers to her work as "solving mysteries." She's a fortysomething, chemically adventurous, bed-hopping, gun-toting, hard-boiled, socially dysfunctional, existentially New Age Nancy Drew, and Monda's performance encompasses all those facets of her personality and more.

"Mysteries never end," Claire's mentor once told her. "We close the file, and close the case, but that doesn't mean we've found the truth, Claire. It only means we've given up on this mystery and decided to look for the truth someplace else." It's well worth following Claire wherever she decides to look, and doubly so when Monda's along for the ride.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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