“Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Sara Gran
“Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway” just might be the bleakest noir tale since “Dope” (2006), and Sara Gran wrote that one, too.
The novel is a sequel to “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead” (2011), another dark yarn, but one leavened by an abundance of quirky characters and occasional flashes of humor. But there’s little to chuckle about in this new story that plunges every character into a pit of despair.
Claire, now in her 40s, is a devotee of a dead French detective named Jacques Silette, author of “Detection,” an obscure book she and her wild childhood friends discovered as teenagers in New York’s East Village. “The detective,” Silette said, “will never be thanked for revealing the truth. … His only reward will be the awful, unbearable truth itself.” The book inspired her to become the self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective — one who shuns forensic evidence in favor of odd clues, intuition, dreams and omens.
The novel’s central mystery is the murder of Paul Casablancas, a musician Claire once dated, abandoned out of fear of intimacy and still loves. But she remains obsessed with the long-ago, unsolved disappearance of one of her childhood friends and also takes on other cases including the unexplained deaths of a client’s miniature horses.
She scours the seamy underworld of the greater San Francisco area for clues while snorting cocaine, popping pills stolen from friends’ medicine cabinets, driving under the influence, indiscriminately sleeping with casual acquaintances of both sexes and mistreating her eager new assistant. Claire demonstrated some of these tendencies in the earlier novel, too, but she gets so out of control in this one that it’s difficult to like her, even when her self-destructive excesses seem likely to snuff out her life.
Claire says she seeks truth, not justice. In the end, she achieves a reasonable facsimile of both — but only at an enormous cost to herself and everyone around her. While noir is an honored tradition in crime fiction, Gran takes the form to dark places rarely seen since Jim Thompson and David Goodis were writing more than a half-century ago.
The Claire DeWitt novels are not so much noir mysteries as stories about the nature of mysteries themselves. The stories are wise, chilling, insightful and reeking with despair — and yet so beautifully written in an original, quirky style that it is difficult to resist them.
At the new novel’s lowest point, Claire says: “The sun came up and even though they had the shades pulled little cracks of sun broke in and it made me angry. What right did it have?” Readers will marvel at Gran’s talent, but this novel is apt to leave them feeling the same way.
Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of “Cliff Walk” and “Rogue Island.”