Nothing stimulates my mind like travel. It's something about being in a different place, a new landscape, with your mind uncluttered by the usual day to day worries and concerns. On my recent trip to Cameroon, I had 10 days to escape from work and the grind, and I found myself making great progress on outlining and shaping the novel I'm about to start. The novel has nothing to do with Africa or Cameroon, but being in a place I'd never visited before acted as some kind of charge to me and I found my entire story taking shape in my head in a way it hadn't over the previous few months of planning. It may also have helped that I did no writing (other than note taking) while on the trip, so I didn't have my mind on any other piece I was working on. In any event, I got enough jotted down and thought out to feel confident enough to get the book started, and now that I am back home, caught up in the customary day to day routine, that's just what I'll do. I have my notes where I want them. I have the characters and the story's general plot, with a possible ending (always open to change if I think of a better ending), but I don't have so much written down that I feel constrained by my outline. So....thanks, Cameroon. Or more broadly, thanks travel. You've served as a positive force once again.
Few things are more enjoyable than reading while on a trip, and during this one, I took along a mystery I've been meaning to get to for awhile - Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2011). Man, did I love this book! Set in New Orleans not too long after Hurricane Katrina, it has an atmosphere that is simultaneously dreamlike and grounded, and that peculiar mixture is also embodied by private eye Claire, hired to find out what happened to a high powered New Orleans lawyer who is missing. It goes without saying that it's fantastically hard at this point to write a PI mystery that has one iota of originality about it, but Sara Gran has. She does it through Claire, a person at once hard-edged and mystical, abrasive and charming. That she uses an esoteric book called Detection, by a strange French detective named Jacques Silette, as her constant guide only added to the pleasure of the novel for me. As I read, I kept thinking that Jorge Luis Borges would have loved this book; there's a totally Borgesian aspect to how Gran keeps quoting Silette's enigmatic tome, a book loaded with odd utterances about mysteries, clues, life and how to function as a detective. As part of her process, Claire pays attention to her dreams, uses the I-Ching, and rolls dice and reads meaning in the numbers. She's a detective who'd have a meaningful conversation, over coffee, with Agent Cooper of Twin Peaks.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is not a detective novel that lays out a clear path of clues for the reader. It's more a book that follows the unpredictable path Claire takes as she works toward finding answers to her questions. In fact, I'd call this a textbook example of a mystery that doesn't rely on plot. It has a plot of course and a fascinating investigation, but what carries the story here are the characters and the evocation of a place. There is Claire in all her layers, with her sensitivity and thorniness, and there are the complex people she encounters. There's Claire with her memories of a Brooklyn childhood and the close friends she had who have vanished or been killed; and there's the the city of New Orleans, and how its decimation in the wake of Katrina has affected its inhabitants. You want to find out what happened to assistant district attorney Vic Willing, but it's really the journey to that revelation that counts in this book.
And speaking of Vic Willing, without giving too much away for those who haven't read the novel: Sara Gran succeeds in doing something not done often enough. She reveals a character who has a beautifully plausible dichotomy to him, someone capable of both heinous and heroic acts. At the heart of the self, as Jacques Silette might suggest, are many selves, and no one's personality and behavior is reductible to a cut and dry explanation. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a mystery, really, about the strangeness of being alive. Nearly all the questions one ever asks about anything lead to more questions, and most answers one formulates are tentative at best.
Glad I finally caught up with Claire DeWitt, and I can't wait to read Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, the second book (and to date last book) about her.