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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (2013) is the second in a series by Sara Gran and as yet her most recent book. I won this intriguingly-designed paperback ages ago -- it feels like it was before the internet was invented, but must have been within the last four years -- in a Faber competition but never got around to reading it until last month. And then I devoured it. This was my first taste of DeWitt and of Gran.

So this is an unusual, very intelligent private eye thriller with unspeakably cool twists on all the conventions of American noir. I am in love with Gran's near hysterical writing style and compulsively drawn to the utterly screwed-up DeWitt.

DeWitt tells us the story of her murdered boyfriend and of her sordid, drug-addled investigation. I loved how completely flawed this character was -- not in a 'look here's some depth' way, but in an old-school 'I-need-to-do-coke-in-this-suspect's-bathroom-for-them-to-make-sense' way. Driving around Los Angeles and meeting increasingly ridiculous (but painfully believable) hipsters, DeWitt retreats into her childhood and soon realises that the resolution to this mystery lies in the false resolutions of the past.

Sometimes the writing gets Chandler-esque, and downright poetic. For instance, DeWitt tells us, on the second page:

Maybe it was true: Life was a series of words we'd been given to arrange as we pleased, only no one seemed to know how. A word game with no right solution, a crossword puzzle where we couldn't quite remember the name of that song. 1962, 'I Wish That We Were ________.'

Later, Gran/DeWitt has some astonishingly thoughtful one liners -- 'Everyone thinks their grief is the first grief' -- and brilliant ways of nailing a character -- 'He'd been nagging me, like when the dentist sends you those little cards reminding you of a visit.' But the author has not just taken all the hallmarks of good hardboiled crime and switched the genders. She's done something much cleverer, more thoughtful and more trippy which I don't fully understand but cannot stop reading.

Absorbing the second Claire DeWitt book has made me keen to read the first. Not just keen; I have an addict's need. If for no other reason, I want to read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2011) to find out more about Jacques Silette, DeWitt's enigmatic mentor who is now dead and who crops up every now and then, in the form of cryptic passages from his manual, Détection.

According to this very old interview, there's going to be a third book, set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. I just hope this isn't a red herring. Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway is dazzlingly weary, funny, and intoxicating.

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