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My favourite detective: Claire DeWitt’s personal loss and blackout hours make her weirdly compelling

In a new series, writers pay tribute to fictional detectives on the page and on screen.

I’ve always preferred my fictional detectives on the weirder side.

Like the sour-tempered narrator of Derek Raymond’s Factory Series. Everyone hates the bloke. But not as much as he hates them back. (He calmly addresses an uncooperative desk sergeant as “you cunt”.) Exiled to the Department of Unexplained Deaths he sets about obsessively solving mysteries no one but he cares about. There’s a higher purpose to his misanthropy.

That series was written in the 1980s, shortly before James Elroy came along and put the whole genre into meltdown. I found myself losing interest in the all-too acceptably transgressive detectives who followed.

Then a few years ago a writer friend alerted me to author Sara Gran, and her almost-impossible-to-describe detective, Claire DeWitt. From precocious girl sleuth to drugged-up detective, she is complex yet dogged.

Words to live by

Book cover: Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead

Claire’s background (we learn) is as a schoolgirl detective, in the Nancy Drew cosy tradition, one of three brainy Brooklyn teens inflamed by pulp novels, mystery comics and mail-order sleuthing paraphernalia. The girls quickly set about solving actual mysteries. Then one of the trio disappears, never to be seen again. That’s the backstory.

Present day Claire is a “detective”, although what that means is unclear. No office, no business cards, no website. She refers to herself as the unquestioned World’s Greatest Detective, and makes frequent mention of past cases, which have names like The Case of the Silver Pearl, The Case of the Omens of No Tomorrow, The Case of the End of the World, The Case of the Confused Academic — the way Dr Watson might refer to Sherlock Holmes’ famous cases.

Claire is never without her bible, Jacques Silette’s criminological masterwork, Détection. The fictitious Silette (I Googled him, just in case) is forever coming out with naff-deep pronouncements like, “Mysteries never end. We solve them anyway, knowing we are solving both everything and nothing”. Or, “No one is innocent. The question is how will you bear your portion of the guilt?” (Good question!)

Book cover: Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

Silette could easily have been mates with theory heavies like Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, dropping as he does such whacky bon mots as “Karma is not a sentence already printed. It’s a series of words the author can arrange as he chooses”.

The world of amateur detection, it turns out, is a deeply riven one, with a few beleaguered Silettians duking it out against the ruthless anti-Silettians. (The international detective scene, with its arcane controversies and obsessional characters is a little like the chess world in The Queen’s Gambit, except with murders.)

Read more: My favourite detective: Trixie Belden, the uncool girl sleuth with a sensitive moral compass

A weakness for weed … and the rest

If this all sounds like a mighty piss-take on the Golden Age detective story, believe me it’s anything but. For one thing, Gran never, ever winks at the audience, never plays cute, never chases laughs. It’s all delivered utterly straight-faced.

For another, Claire is a total dope hog. If she happens upon a white powder or an amber fluid, or a pill, or something to smoke or sniff, she’s into it.

Sometimes the action will skip eight, ten hours or a whole day, then restart when a comatose Claire suddenly comes to with the breaking down of a toilet door by a terrified barman. People see her coming and they call the cops.

Young woman in gritty street setting
If it’s mind-altering, Claire DeWitt is up for it, sometimes creating gaps in the narrative. Unsplash/Artem Ivanchencko, CC BY

Read more: Friday essay: the complex, contradictory pleasures of pulp fiction

She is very “street”. In one classic set piece, two obviously armed teenage boys stand between her and her truck door in the Lower Ninth Ward in post Katrina New Orleans. Attuned to such cues, Claire sees suicidal longing in the beautiful eyes of the boy standing in front of her. She doesn’t oblige him.

Later on she shares a joint soaked in a brown liquid — formaldehyde? — with some anonymous street kid and they both slip into operatic hallucination, gaping in silence at the rising moon. That chemical delirium is kind of like what you feel when reading a Claire DeWitt novel.

Book cover: Claire deWitt The Infinite Backdrop

The stories race ahead, as tough and beautifully written as any crime fiction. And for all the drug snarfing, Claire remains a very reliable narrator. It’s reality that’s unreliable.

Gran confidently assembles this cosy yet hardboiled grunge-social-realist material-yet-trippily-archetypal world. Into it he adds Claire: its druggy, self-harming, hyper-intellectual, spiritually questing, maybe psychotic but thoroughly unrelenting outsider shamus. It’s a big ask but it works.

By the end of latest novel, the third in the series, the overarching mysteries which thread all three together have joined in a single weave. So maybe Gran has finished with Claire. I hope not.

I let my mind fill with the case. It was only a case. Only another case. Another sentence of words to rearrange. Maybe that was all there was to life. One long case, only you kept switching roles. Detective, witness, client, suspect. Then one day I’d be the victim instead of the detective or the client and it would all be over. Then I’d finally have a fucking day off.

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

Read more: My favourite detective: Kurt Wallander — too grumpy to like, relatable enough to get under your skin

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