'Claire DeWitt' a dreamy mystery for readers

Author Sara Gran models private eye Claire Dewitt's new age sleuthing philosophies after her own mystical interests

Story highlights

  • The character Claire DeWitt joins a distinguished line of women in mystery fiction
  • DeWitt solves murders with a mixture of investigative chops and new age philosophy
  • Author Sara Gran draws many parallels between her own life experiences and Dewitt's

From Nancy Drew to Miss Marple to the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Lisbeth Salander, there's a long and distinguished line of famous women in mystery fiction. I have a new favorite female sleuth to add to the list, Claire DeWitt.

The self-described "world's greatest private eye" returns in her second adventure from author Sara Gran in "Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway" hitting bookstores this week.

Claire is not your typical P.I., and the book is not your run of the mill mystery. Claire is a new age heroine who uses dreams, visions and intuition to uncover clues and close cases. Gran's writing is a mix of the gritty noir tradition in crime writing supplemented with a mystical, dream-like quality -- a sort of hard-boiled surrealism.

In the new novel, Claire has moved on from New Orleans, the scene of her last case in "Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead." She's now living in San Francisco when called on to investigate the death of a close friend, her musician ex-boyfriend Paul Casablancas. Police are calling his death a robbery gone wrong, but Claire suspects murder. The case hits Claire hard, bringing up unresolved feelings of love. Was Paul the one who got away?

Gran says Claire looks at losing Paul "as a huge mistake that she's made in her life of letting someone go, or maybe it wasn't a mistake, maybe things were better the way they turned out. You just can't know and that's part of what's really hard for Claire, is never really knowing."

As Claire digs deeper into Paul's murder, she's drawn to one of her past cases, another friend, this time a teenage girl, gone missing in 1980s New York. The two cases, past and present, lead Claire into a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior involving drugs and alcohol.

Gran says writing about Claire's personal challenges and seeing her change is what she loves most about the series. "People really do change with the character every book. I think that's a bit of surprise to readers because in most detective series the character is the same in every book. I wish we were like that in real life. Things would probably be better."

Claire is rooted in much of the author's own experience. "There's a lot that's autobiographical in Claire," Gran says. "Our life stories are really similar. The places where we've lived and our interests, but we're more similar in the small things."

Sadly, Gran says those similarities don't extend to her dreams. "I wish I had dreams that were so exciting and deep like Claire. I very rarely have dreams that interesting and noteworthy."

Readers will get a kick out of Claire's method of crime-solving, a mix of mystical and new age philosophy, Buddhism and Hindu beliefs. It's also rooted in the writings of a fictional French detective, Jacques Silette, whose instruction tends to the cryptic. A typical piece of advice from Silette reads, "A clue is a word in another language and mysteries speak the language of dreams." Makes perfect sense, no?

Some readers, me included, will latch onto the Carlos Castaneda like tangents of "Claire DeWitt." Others are just in it for the mystery, and Gran is fine with that, too.

"A lot of people just gloss over all the spiritual and philosophical stuff in the books, and they just read them as mysteries, which is OK," she said. "I'm fine with people reading the book like that, but it is nice to hear from readers who appreciate that aspect of it."

Gran says she's borrowed from several different schools of psychology and religion, things she finds personally interesting, to come up with Claire's world view. She calls it a reflection of her own upbringing, which she says wasn't limited to just one faith.

"I was not raised as a member of any particular religion. My parents were always saying decide for yourself, think for yourself, think about what you believe in. So all those things are sort of equal to me," she said. "I always feel like whenever you learn something great it's OK to borrow that. I know some people don't agree and feel like you should stick with one philosophy or one religion, but that's never really been an option for me."

On the other hand, Gran says Claire is very single-minded in her goal as a detective, uncovering the truth. "From Claire's point of view solving a mystery and solving a crime are two different things. Solving a crime is what police and other detectives do, and they can do that better than her. She's not interested in that. What she does is solve mysteries, which is restoring truth to a situation."

Gran is already working on Claire's next mystery, and she has a fourth book in mind.

A Brooklyn native now living in Los Angeles, she also writes for film and TV, including a past gig on the TNT drama "Southland." Gran says she enjoys both.

"Writing books is a very solitary activity while working for TV is very collaborative. If I only did TV, I would go crazy although I did only write books for so long it's been really nice for me to take a break and work with a group of people and not have everything be on my shoulders in terms of telling the story."

Gran also says there's a "Claire DeWitt" TV series in the works. She's working on a pilot script with producer John Wells, one of the creative forces behind past hits "ER" and "The West Wing."

For all the mysticism, the philosophical jags, the hard-boiled behavior, the series is easy to read and fun. Neither Gran nor Claire takes themselves too seriously, just take a look at the names of some of Claire's past cases, including, 'The Case of the Kleptomaniacal Occultist" or "The Case of the Missing Miniature Horses."

Asked to boil down Claire's code as "the world's greatest P.I." into one sentence, Gran says, "Trust yourself. That's it in a nutshell."

Read an excerpt from "Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway"