Sara Gran, a little known American writer with a loyal following, has a new book due out on June 4, 2011. Along with some short stories she has published three previous novels, all wildly different from each other.
The first, "Saturn returns to New York", is a story of a woman coming to terms with adulthood. It transcends its Bridget Jones-Big City setting and reaches a much deeper level. Her other two books are "Come Closer" and "Dope". The former is a tale of demonic possession or a psychological descent into madness(take your pick) which recalls Polanski's brilliant film "Repulsion". The latter is a story of an ex-junkie in search of a missing girl that leads her back to the streets she fought so hard to escape.
Sara Gran's latest is called "Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead". To call this a detective novel is like calling her previous books chick-lit, horror, and crime novels. They actually defy simple categorization.
In her new book we meet Claire Dewitt. A wonderful name combining Latin and Greek to translate roughly as "clear sighted". As with all of Gran's books this is a book about books, by books, and with books. Ostensibly a detective story, she includes all the classic Mike Hammer elements: Dark dangerous streets, subtle and overt threats, punch-ups, odd characters, etc. The core mystery is lain out and solved as in any crime novel, and can, at its simplest, be read that way. Gran, however, despite her claims to the contrary, has created a multi-layered novel about the very nature of "mystery". While there is a solution to a mystery in the book, other mysteries abound and act as background and catalysts in themselves. She creates a very subtle and disconcerting aura that defies easy description. Her setting in post-Katrina New Orleans gives us an off-kilter world with a wobbly axis. As with the bestof art careful parsing of its elements can easily remove the magic, and believe me, this book is magic. Often the things we understand the least have the strongest effect on us.
I found the book to be rife with metaphorical riches. From the physical book itself, its color scheme, its flashbacks, and its hundred year perspective on New Orleans, Sara Gran lays line after line of clues to mysteries both seen and unseen. Like a peeled onion the layers of clues appear in linked succession. Gran also has musical elements in her novel. In addition to the music that permeates the city, certain elements of the stories of her maincharacters, both alive and dead, weave in and out and are repeated. This pattern is very much like a recurring rondo theme in the final movement of a sonata.
Her presentation of the city is totally enthralling. It encompasses all the good, bad, and in between that New Orleans holds. The duality of its citizens: The noble and the base writhe like cottonmouths in the flood waters.
I have enjoyed all of Sara Gran's books but this time out she has taken a quantum leap forward. This is a unique and elegantly structured piece of writing. This book begins a new series and is, by far, the best out this year. Do not miss it.
Appearing at The Poisoned Pen 6/7/2011
Sara Gran will be appearing at the Poisoned Pen on June 7, 2011. Please come and meet her and get your book signed. Aside from being a terrific writer she is one very cool woman.
As for further reading featuring a strong, complicated modern female lead try John Connor. He is an ex-lawyer and little known British author whose series begins with "Phoenix". There are five books in the series so far. All of them are extremely well written and riveting police procedurals that go way beyond the genre.