“On Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the Nature of Truth in Detective Fiction” (by Chad Baker)

In the days when EQMM had a Department of Second Stories, legal-aid attorney Chad Baker would have qualified. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue, May/June 2019, with the story “The Smoking Bandit of Lakeside Terrace.” Previously, he had a paid fiction publication in the literary journal From the Depths. He’s also written several plays that have been performed at theater companies around the country and had a creative nonfiction piece published in the literary journal Lunch Ticket. Currently a Chicago-area resident, Chad is using his free time to pursue an M.A. in writing and publishing. It’s evident from this post that he has extensive knowledge of the crime-fiction genre, past and present. —Janet Hutchings

Above all, the inner knowing of the detective trumps every piece of evidence, every clue, every rational assumption. If we do not put it first and foremost, always, there is no point in carrying on, in detection or in life.

This admonition comes from Détection by Jacques Silette, a book that joins a grand tradition of fascinating texts-within-texts, volumes that you long to pluck from some dusty shelf and peruse but cannot. The book doesn’t exist. At least, not in our world. The book serves as something between a field manual and a spiritual text for Claire DeWitt, the PI created by author Sara Gran. The most recent Claire DeWitt novel, The Infinite Blacktop, came out last year, preceded by Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (2013) and Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2011).

These character-centered mysteries feature some of the most engrossing, evocative prose I’ve read in contemporary mystery fiction, but my purpose here isn’t simply to recommend them (though I do), but rather to observe how the Claire DeWitt novels illuminate an important aspect of detective fiction: every detective story contains within it a theory of what truth is and how we can grasp it—or an “epistemology,” I’ll say, just to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth out of that liberal-arts degree. The epistemology we glimpse in mystery stories is one of the many reasons they are so culturally important.

Let’s start at the beginning. English-language detective fiction was born and raised in an increasingly scientific and rational age. Edgar Allan Poe’s creation C. Auguste Dupin, widely acknowledged to be fiction’s first detective, is the ultimate product of two centuries of Enlightenment-era love of reason. The method by which Dupin solves the crimes in his stories, which Poe called “ratiocination,” suggests that a sufficiently brilliant mind can get to the truth of any problem through a series of purely logical reasonings (whether that logic be deductive or inductive or abductive or superconductive or whatever). Poe’s master logician became the blueprint for every other classic or “cozy” detective written since, from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Lord Peter Wimsey.

In the epistemology of the classic murder mystery, the truth is a shining thing that lies at the center of a web of trivial details, waiting to be plucked by a hero with a keen eye and sharp mind. Once the detective learns that the butler is left-handed and what time the train to Hartford departed, he merely has to take a seat in the parlor, light his pipe, and puzzle it all out.

Then, in the interwar period, American authors like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler took detective fiction in a gritty new direction. Chandler thought there was very little truth in the traditional “Golden Age” English detective story, and he said so in his famous 1944 (revised in 1950) essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” He describes the problems of logic and deduction in classic detective stories as “too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world.” He praises Hammet for interjecting realism into the genre: “Hammet took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.”

At the core of the obvious and well-known differences between the hardboiled style and the classical mystery is a difference of epistemology. The paths that Hammet’s Sam Spade or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe take toward the truth are fundamentally different from those of Dupin, Holmes, and their progeny. For the hardboiled gumshoe, truth is not a genteel parlor game; it can only be gleaned by slinking down the darkest streets, tussling with the toughest thugs, and drinking an awful lot of liquor. Philip Marlowe is depicted as a bright guy but not a preternatural genius. He is more likely to fumble his way toward the case’s solution through a series of violent, happenstantial encounters than through an astounding feat of logical gymnastics. The epistemology contained within this era of noir is chaotic and tactile: you won’t know the truth until it jumps out from the shadows and saps you on the head.

Nor does the hardboiled PI always arrive at a complete and tidy truth. We don’t know who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, and neither did the author. Chandler and other writers of hardboiled noir were less concerned with the truth at the center of a formal logic problem and more concerned with other, abstracted truths about human behavior. Truths about what life looks and sounds and tastes like down the mean streets of urban America. Truths about power—who wields it and who gets squashed by it.

Chandler believed that his tribe of “realist” fiction writers, unlike the authors of classic detective stories, revealed the world as it actually is—a world, as he says in the essay, “where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket.” And what use is formalist logic in this kind of corrupt, violent world where nothing makes sense?

That brings us back to Sara Gran and her detective, Claire DeWitt. If we must situate Gran’s work in the family tree of detective fiction, it sprouts from the hardboiled branch; there are echoes of Chandler’s lean brutality and weaponized wit in her style, and she cites James Sallis’s series featuring PI Lew Griffin as an influence. On a surface level, the plots of the Claire DeWitt books follow a hardboiled noir formula: a tough, wised-up PI gets a case, tracks down leads, ingests a lot of alcohol and other substances, gets into some violent scrapes, and eventually gets her culprit.

But Gran’s books are less about the solution to any particular mystery and more about mystery itself, about mystery as an essential aspect of what it means to be human. In each book, as Claire tries to solve a murder case, she also wrestles with more difficult unanswered questions: What happened to the best friend from her teen detective years in Brooklyn, who vanished when they were fifteen? How can she keep going after the random and meaningless murder of her mentor? Why does she alienate nearly everyone in her life? Along the way, Gran presents her own distinctive epistemology that breaks the previous molds.

Claire, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective, is a member of a small, esoteric school of investigation founded on the teachings of Jacques Silette as recorded in his only book, Détection. Like other mid-twentieth-century renegade French thinkers named Jacques (I’m thinking of Derrida and Lacan), many people find Silette’s writing bizarre and impenetrable. As Claire says, “the book is notoriously difficult—sometimes nonsensical, always contradictory.” Here’s an example of one of Détection’s quasi-mystical aphorisms, which Gran sprinkles throughout the books:

There are no innocent victims. The victim selects his role as carefully and unconsciously as the policeman, the detective, the client, or the villain. Each chooses his role and then forgets this, sometimes for many lifetimes, until one comes along who can remind him.

Most people dismiss Silette as a crank or a fraud (despite his perfect solve rate), but for the select few “Silletian” detectives, like Claire DeWitt, their first encounter with Détection reveals to them their true calling. Claire says that the book saved her life and ruined it.

In many ways, Claire uses standard investigating procedures: she fingerprints the scene, sifts through financial records, interviews witnesses. But she also employs less conventional methods. She consults the I Ching. She examines fingerprints not only to place individuals at the scene but also to divine characteristics of the owner’s nature, examining their “Destiny Whorl” and “Arc of Compassion.” She lets herself be guided by visions from her dreams, and she’s more likely to ask a witness how a crime scene felt to them rather than what they saw. She has ventured far from the pure rationality of the English parlor. One suspects Lord Peter Wimsey would not approve.

Raymond Chandler might not approve either: he maintained that fiction should aspire to be, above all things, realistic. The Claire DeWitt books take a place in a world that is, as Gran stated in an interview, “just a little to the left of reality.” There’s an undertone of strangeness and surreality shot through the landscapes of these novels. Copies of Détection appear as if by magic to those who need to read it. Claire consults oracle-like figures such as her “poker chip man,” who can hold, sniff, and lick a poker chip and then enter a kind of trance state in which he discovers precisely which casino table the chip came from.

In the epistemology of the Claire DeWitt books, logic and deduction will not, by themselves, lead you to the truth. In a conversation that occurs in The Infinite Blacktop, Claire tries to explain this to an operative of a traditional private-eye firm, a firm with the motto: “Facts are king.” Claire leads him in a meditative exercise, placing her hand on his belly:

“You know something here,” I said. “Where your nadis cross at your spine. Where your kundalini sleeps. You know something here . . . There is a snake coiled at the base of your spine,” I whispered to Christopher, dragging my hand, the warmth I now shared with him, the pieces of him it carried, down to his lower belly. “And there is nothing that snake doesn’t know. You just have to let it speak.”

Claire’s approach to knowledge is more expansive than the Western rationality that reigns over traditional English-language detective fiction, and it includes ways of knowing that are much older than C. Auguste Dupin, older than science, older than the Age of Enlightenment, and probably older than language itself. In an interview, Gran remarked that “the linguistic and historic link between mystic and mystery is not to be underestimated.”

But the core belief of the Silletian school of detection, the core belief that guides Claire DeWitt, is not mysticism exactly, but rather the simple and dangerous idea that truth is a sacred thing. To obtain it requires great sacrifice. To speak it makes one unpopular. But the truth is worth it. It is the only real meaning we’re going to find on our long journey through guaranteed heartbreak. The truth is our most important obligation to each other.

Those ideas feel more necessary than ever in a world that is now, we are told, “post-truth.” A world where basic, verifiable facts are contested or ignored by those in power and large swaths of the population. A world of sound bites and skim-reading. A world that has determined that deep understanding and authenticity are not particularly good for the bottom line.

Every detective story contains within it a theory of what truth is and how we can grasp it, and therefore every detective story necessarily assumes that truth exists and is worth looking for in the first place. That, in itself, has become a radical proposition.

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This entry was posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Criticism, Fiction, Genre, hardboiled, mystery fiction, Noir, Writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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