It’s an audacious move putting the name of your detective in the title of a novel, but Claire DeWitt is a big enough character to justify such confidence. The second novel in Sara Gran’s San Francisco crime series is a strange, heady narrative that draws you into a noirish netherworld of sex, drugs and rock n roll. It’s also a thoughtful, imaginative detective novel with a wit and rhythm that fans of Raymond Chandler will admire.
The Bohemian Highway switches between contemporary San Francisco and Brooklyn during DeWitt’s youth in the 80s, when she was an aspiring Nancy Drew sending off for fingerprint sets advertised in the back of detective comics. If it sounds a little whimsical, it’s really not. What’s clever about Gran’s writing is that the humour is not always where you expect it.
The teenage detective’s early case involving the search for a young drug addict offers a glimpse of a character who we know from the alternating chapters ends up as a resourceful PI, albeit one whose personal life is falling apart. The San Francisco story focuses on the fortysomething DeWitt’s investigation into the murder of Paul Casablancas, a popular and wealthy local musician who happened to be an ex-boyfriend.
DeWitt’s approach to detection is intuitive, even mystical, and she draws on the philosophical writings of the fictional French master detective, Jacques Silette. Her deductions often seem to depend on what she dreamed about the previous night, while one of her confidants is a forest-dwelling shaman know as the Red Detective. DeWitt’s mantra is ‘everything matters’, which is why she quizzes people about seemingly irrelevant details.
Her case has her trawling bars, dingy concert venues and guitar shops, as well as questioning various deadbeats and struggling musicians while trying not to annoy the cops. It turns out the solution might hinge on a missing guitar taken by the killer during what appears to have been a bungled robbery. This investigation is personal, so she has to tiptoe around Paul’s affairs without upsetting his wife, Lydia, the tattooed guitarist who Claire unwittingly set up with her ex one night. Lydia can’t face living in a crime scene and has retreated to her husband’s other house on the Bohemian Highway of the book’s title.
Claire DeWitt’s San Francisco is a shadowy, hedonistic city that’s often shrouded in fog like Sherlock Holmes’s London, although that may be because our detective is often still awake pre-dawn following another drink and drugs binge. Her personal problems are undoubtedly down to the losses she’s endured, including the death of a fellow disciple of Silette in New Orleans, and the disappearance of her teenage detective partner, Tracy, decades earlier. Tracy is the enduring, agonising mystery that hangs over this novel.
However, there’s also a playful sense of humour, particularly in the elaborate names DeWitt gives to her cases, including the Case of the Suspicious Sideshow Performer, the Case of the Green Parrot and the Case of the Missing Miniature Horses. DeWitt clearly identifies with the cultural tradition of the detective, although she tends to reference old TV shows such as Hawaii Five-0, Columbo and even Hart to Hart rather than classic authors.
Gran pulls off her literary high-wire act combining private eye procedural, metaphysical mystery and dark comedy with some style. DeWitt also reminded me of Cass Neary, the ageing punk-rock photographer in Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss, first published in 2007, and its sequel Available Dark. They are both fascinating, damaged characters who demonstrate the possibilities of the crime genre.
It’s true that DeWitt’s drug taking can become tiresome when she keeps disappearing to the bathroom, while the book’s cliffhanger ending is a little unfair on the reader. Then again, it’s in the spirit of a novel in which, according to the Silette, ‘mysteries never end’. Like Chandler, Gran’s more interested in creating an intriguing, atmospheric mystery than a straightforward solution.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars