Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2018

City of the Dead, A Claire DeWitt Mystery (2011), by Sara Gran

City of the Dead is a book that made me think about all sorts of things, but I shall try not to make this review into a rant.

I have read some rather grim books lately, and I wanted to read something more light-hearted.  From my shelves I took down the ‘hilarious’, ‘enchanting’, ‘uplifting’ and ‘profoundly moving’ The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan but abandoned it after the requisite 50 pages.  I am out of step with the entire reading universe, it seems, because IMO, quite apart from its stock characters and ridiculous plot lines, this historical novel of WW2 is overwritten and tasteless.  On page two we are told that nobody is mourning the young local heir to the manor who’s been blown up in the North Sea, because he was a bully.  No fancy ideas about redemption in this novel: without a trace of authorial irony,  Mrs B brusquely implies that Edmund clearly deserved to die a horrible death.  Am I the only one who finds this offensive, even if he was a childhood bully? Have I missed an ‘hilarious’ joke here?

City of the Dead OTOH raises very interesting cases for redemption.  Can a paedophile earn redemption?  Under what circumstances can an avenger be forgiven?

My second attempt at light reading was Three Bags Full, by German author Leonie Swann and translated by Anthea Bell.   This one was said to be ‘priceless’, ‘witty’ and ‘full of  philosophical musings and profound observations’.  It features a crime in the Irish village of Glennkill, and a flock of sheep led by a ewe called Miss Maple who collectively solve the mystery.  When it took me four days to get up to page 99, I realised that I did not care who had killed the shepherd or why, because I was bored.  So much for Three Bags Full. 

For most of City of the Dead, however, it wasn’t that I didn’t care, it was that I forgot about who had done the killing and why.  The denouement, when it comes, is a bit of an afterthought.  And like all the other crime novels I have ever read, (or abandoned) the novel features a world-weary detective, alienated from friends and family, operating in a sleazy environment and possessed of an almost magical acuity when it comes to ‘reading’ people. However, I did not abandon City of the Dead because its major character is in fact a city, the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event which shocked the world and not because of the force of the hurricane.  Sara Gran has played with the form of a detective novel to write a very powerful novel indeed.

Let me quote from a blurber called Shots:

City of the Dead may be a post-modern take on the private eye novel, or a surreal examination of a disordered imagination, either way it is strangely hypnotic and particularly good on its evocation of the devastated city of New Orleans.’

The characters that the female sleuth meets are unforgettable. And when the gangs of youths who have been abandoned to their fate in this city of hopelessness begin to tell their stories, few readers will be able to suppress their memories of seeing panic-stricken people stuck on rooves as the waters rise around them, of the chaos of the Superdome, and of the filth and disorder and hunger.  And the failure to help each other and the spine-chilling lawlessness.

Sara Gran depicts the apocalyptic city in extremis and in its first stages of recovery.  In a bland tone, her world-weary private-eye notes the shocking inequities that separate the suburbs that survived and are thriving, from those that are struggling to rebuild and reconnect because there is no money, no support, no coordinating authority, and no hope that it will ever be anything different for the impoverished people trying to live there.  Neither she nor the people she meets expect anything else, just as they do not expect the police to help, or to do anything other than go through the motions, siphoning a suspected murderer into a 30-day period on remand and then releasing him back into the community for lack of evidence.  For the poor and the marginalised, Hurricane Katrina drowned Law and Justice along with everything else.

So, yes, this turned out to be grim reading too.  But the characterisation of Claire DeWitt is wry and amusing, and the Black youths who lead her up the garden path are witty and clever and surprisingly in charge of their lives.  I could almost see them looking convincingly threatening as they saunter through the ravaged streets in their baggy pants and oversized sneakers, their tatts a kind of code that only someone equally on the outer can read.  It takes a writer of great skill to show the vulnerability and charm of these young men and make them fully human when all we see on TV is otherwise.  I could have done without the mystical mumbo-jumbo from Claire DeWitt’s dead mentor Constance and the quotations from a real-or-imagined teach-yourself manual called Détection by some real-or-imagined detective called Silette, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book.

I don’t know if anyone else has written a novel about Katrina.  But if someone has, City of the Dead is the standard they have to live up to.

Quite by coincidence it turns out that this was almost a readalong with Emma from Book Around the Corner.  She read and reviewed it earlier this year and intrigued, I reserved it at the library where (of course) it came in at the same time as a dozen other books and I almost didn’t finish it before it was due back.

Author: Sara Gran
Title: City of the Dead, A Claire DeWitt Mystery
Publisher: Faber and Faber UK, 2012, first published in 2011
ISBN: 9780571259182
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: City of the Dead: A Claire DeWitt Mystery (Claire DeWitt)



  1. Thanks for the link to my post, Lisa.
    My favourite crime fiction books are often those where the crime is almost a second thought and the description of the society where it is set is everything.

    I agree with you about New Orleans in this book.
    I was appalled by the incompetence of the American urgency services when Katrina stroke. It was clear that if you were poor or black, or both, you could die. It looked like a hurricane in Haiti instead of one in a rich country.

    And the reconstruction or lack of in poor neighbourhoods is a shame and DeWitt shows it well.

    Unfortunately the mystical “mumbo jumbo” as you describe it was enough to put me off the book. It made me so angry and impatient and full on rolling-my-eyes mode that it put a screen between me and the interesting parts of the book, the ones you mention in this review.

    PS: next idea for your reading in French: one of the trilogy by Petros Markaris. It’s about the economic crisis in Greece. (not available in English) There are two billets on my blog.


    • I find myself wondering why the author included the mystical stuff, maybe it was to offset the harsh realism of the rest of it?


  2. I’ve read yours and Emma’s reviews. It sounds very interesting on the subject of Katrina. I would find the mystical stuff as off putting as you both do, though I suppose detective fiction is a crowded space these days and the author needed a hook. “Claire de Witt” looks familiar so I guess the library have at least one. I might be back with another comment if I happen to listen to one.


    • I’m not sure how you could skate over the silly bits if it’s an audio book. But oh, I’d love to hear the dialogue dramatised!


      • If a story is annoying me I just hit skip and jump ahead 3 minutes. It rarely affects the overall story and sometimes it’s fun not to know a crucial point. (I hate being shouted at, which is a lot different from reading x shouted, “…)


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