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After the Levees Broke
on 7 June 2011
If you like your crime fiction, or heck, just your regular fiction, a little offbeat and dark -- this is well worth trying. The titular Claire is the world's foremost private detective and we meet her in 2007 New Orleans at the start of a new case. The nephew of a much-liked prosecutor has hired her to find out what happened to his uncle, who went missing during the post-Katrina flooding. The case is a bit of an uneasy homecoming for Claire -- she used to live in New Orleans, but left following the murder of her mentor several years ago.
Claire is a compelling, but very damaged protagonist, and definitely not your typical fictional detective. Just to give a sense of her, there's a brief throwaway line in the first third of of the book in which she mentions off-handedly that she's shot four people, killed two -- "none in self-defense." No further explanation given (nor necessary). She's also a devotee of the mysterious French detective Silette and his enigmatic treatise "Detection". She uses the I-Ching, takes whatever narcotics are at hand, follows hunches based on dreams, lies, cheats, steals, and is generally unstable.
The book tacks back and forth between Claire's investigation and glimpses into her messy past. Unlike most conventional crime stories, it's hard to tell what's relevant to the investigation and what isn't. There's a fair amount of time spent detailing her girlhood friendship with two other girls in New York, and the mysterious disappearance of one of them when they were teenagers some twenty years ago -- and you'll have to read to the end to learn if this have anything to do with the main plotline. Missing people are a recurring theme in the book, and creates a core of sorrow to the story.
The book also has a lot to say and show about post-Katrina New Orleans. Both the city and Claire are suffering from what might be considered post-traumatic stress disorder, and the pain of this contrasts with the deadpan prose and dialogue. The author lived through the floods, and the book doesn't shirk from grim and heartrending descriptions of what happened during and after the flooding. It's not a happy book, but it is one well worth reading by anyone with an interest in New Orleans, or if you like interesting female protagonists.