A smart female detective on the job in a grim New Orleans

Sara Gran, author of 'Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead,' says discussing food or culture in New Orleans is ignoring the tragedy.

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    "Two years later, people are saying, 'When the aid and the trucks come,' and it's like, 'Dude, there's no trucks coming,' " author Sara Gran says of New Orleans, the setting for her detective novel "Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead."
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In New Orleans, they call it "the storm." Not just the hurricane named Katrina but the rolling disaster that lasted for days.

Author Sara Gran evacuated and returned. For two years, she watched the decline of one of the most vibrant and unique places on earth. And for two years, she watched the world ignore the real story of heartache and misery, much of it shoved deep into the minds of those whose city was lost.

Gran brings this grim, gritty, and unhappy New Orleans to life in her entrancing mystery novel "Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead," which is now out in paperback. In the well-reviewed book, Gran manages to expose the darkness in the Big Easy while still finding signs of life amid the ruins. I reached Gran last week and we talked about her mystical private-eye character, the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans and the next book in the Claire DeWitt series.

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Q: For people who haven't read the book, who's Claire DeWitt?

A: Claire DeWitt is in her mid-30s and from Brooklyn. She's "the world's greatest detective," but no one believes her. We'll find out if it's true as the series goes on.

She's been been through a lot, had a really hard childhood, and a lot of personal losses. She doesn't get a lot of pleasure in her life, but she does get pleasure out of solving crimes.

She's a devotee of a French detective who has an unusual school of detective work based on intuition, omens, and psychology. It is not science-based, more like the alternative medicine of detective work.

Q: She seems pretty messed up as she tries to solve the case of a missing prosecutor. Is that fair to say?

A: She's in one of those phases in her life where she's in between things. She’s not really depressed, she’s not really happy. She doesn’t have a future she's particularly looking forward to, but she's not in her past. She didn't want to go to New Orleans, but goes there to help solve this crime.

She does have this way of solving mysteries that’s stable for her that she can fall back on. It provides her the routine and stability that most people take for granted in life.

Q: You're from Brooklyn, lived in New Orleans, and now live in Northern California, just like her. How much of Claire is you?

A: Forty-three percent.

I just made that up, but that may be right. Between 43 and 57 percent.

Q: What in her is not like you?

A: The stuff with the guns, and being very tough and strong. She’s a lot smarter than me, she figures something out in a minute that takes me six months. She's more fun and more interesting.

Q: What's been the reaction among readers to her?

A: I hoped people who would see her as an inspiration, despite the darkness and the weirdness of the character and her own personal history, in the way she found a way to do something good despite the screwed-up things that have happened to them. People have responded to that exactly the way I hoped they would.

Q: Your portrait of New Orleans is grim, full of decrepit homes, desperate people, and thugs standing on street corners. What made you decide to look at that part of it?

A: I wanted to write a book that was more about my experiences after the storm. I was really depressed when I wrote the book. Being in New Orleans after the storm was really depressing. The rest of the country seemed to want the cheerful and upbeat stories, but there weren't a lot of them.

It's a great place, a wonderful place, but you read in The New York Times or Times-Picayune about the music and the food and the culture.

I love crawfish étouffée, but I don’t think that’s an appropriate topic in a discussion when thousands of people died and thousands are left homeless, and the people left behind are walking around zombies.

Q: What did you see happening in the city?

A: It was very divided. You'd meet people like me who lost no one and those who lost 15 to 20 family members and neighbors.

There was not an emotional public space to acknowledge the pain that people were going through. People are so terrified of dealing with their pain, but if you don’t, you end up with permanent post-traumatic stress disorder.

Q: It sounds unrelentingly grim, doesn't it?

A: That's what it was like living in this city.

For some reason, nobody really came to help. Two years later, people are saying, "When the aid and the trucks come," and it's like, "Dude, there's no trucks coming." People say, "When we start the rebuilding effort," but there's been no WPA-type rebuilding effort.

Q: Did you worry about being fair to New Orleans?

A: I didn't worry about fair at all, I worried about being honest to my experience and the imaginary world of my characters' experience.

You can't write a book and be fair. You have to write a book and be honest.

There is more to New Orleans than what I pictured. There’s a lot that’s wonderful and beautiful. But there's enough talk about the music and the food.

Q: Your next Claire DeWitt book is due out in the spring of 2013. What's it about?

A: She’s back at home in San Francisco, and a close friend of hers is murdered. The book also goes back to a murder in Brooklyn in the 1980s. It's two stories and alternates between them.

Q: Are you attracted to writing about the darker side of things?

A: I’m more interested in the dark side, in how the people of New Orleans were not perfect.

Everybody wants to talk about the innocent victims, but we're never really innocent victims. We're never really innocent, and it's sort of dehumanizing to say that they are. It's more interesting and respectful to get into these darker areas.

Still, in my previous three books I wrote exclusively about the dark side of things, and that got really boring. What's more interesting are these spaces of light and good deeds that come in these dark spaces.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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