Review: Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, By Sara Gran

Hard-boiled detection with modern angst

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The Independent Culture

The peculiar alchemy of crime fiction and its commercial kick is an intrigue in itself. This is storytelling on the felonious fringes of society and yet it pulls in readers in dizzying numbers. A detective story provides you with a resolution in a manner that your relationship or career seldom does, and you get a plot-induced high as the pages blur by. But the real dopamine hit is the alternative psychology the great literary detectives inhabit: Holmes's borderline autism; Poirot's little grey cells; Miss Marple's village philosophy. That's what dunnit.

In Claire DeWitt, Sara Gran has created a sleuth with a somewhat spiritual take on the business of following leads. Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, the second of Gran's San Francisco-set mysteries, has the titular private eye working on the founding principles of Jacques Silette, the late (fictional) author of Détection. Silette's ideology is that answers come through a combination of gut instinct and moments of out-of-body clarity.

DeWitt isn't your run of the mill acolyte. She's a coke-snorting, thieving, punk-loving thirtysomething with a penchant for one-night stands. She's bisexual and emotionally conflicted; feelings blindside her. And in her latest case, feelings are prevalent: her ex-boyfriend, the rich guitarist Paul Casablancas, is gunned down in his Mission District home.

Paul's wife is a grief-stricken mess, the cops think it's a bungled robbery and there isn't a clue in sight. But then things that are out of sight are what Silette's approach is all about. “Above all, the inner knowing of the detective trumps every piece of evidence, every clue, every rational assumption,” he says. “If we do not put it first and foremost, always, there is no point in carrying on, in detection or in life.” And so Claire digs deep and carries on.

Gran writes in that hard-boiled staccato style of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, updated for the angst-ridden, drug-dependent sad souls of the 21st century. It works brilliantly and often to comic effect. Alongside Paul's murder, Claire runs the “Case of the Miniature Horses”. A rancher north of the bay wants to know who's rustling his herd of 3ft 6in thoroughbreds. Claire's theory is that “the little fellows were running away to try and get some big boy genes in the mix”.

The winning formula Gran has hit upon combines an appreciation for the history of her genre (there are echoes not only of noir classics but also The Rockford Files and the Charlie Chan mysteries) and a contemporary grittiness. She doesn't shy away from the seamier side of town, hidden away in the shadows of the Golden Gate Bridge. And Claire DeWitt is a wonderfully engaging, potentially delusional, protagonist. In her own words, “no one called a private detective, especially not me, until every rational option had been explored and dismissed”. If I were to follow my gut instinct I'd say that Gran has a best-seller on her hands.