I read The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran. I got a copy a few years ago, at the same time as Cherry by Nico Walker, because it looked like an exciting crime thriller. When I finally read it I found out it was the 3rd in a series of 3 stories about private investigator Claire DeWitt. I have now read the 2 earlier books. The whole saga is grimly enjoyable, and I can see it has potential for a 5 season Netflix adaptation. Since Sara Gran has already worked as a TV writer, this might be under negotiation or development right now. So here’s an advance notice that I was a fan before you were a fan.
All 3 novels involve Claire working through a current case, whilst flashing back to her origin story or an early case. Each book runs to about 60 chapters, most of which are only 2 or 3 pages long. Claire is the world’s greatest detective, and her identity is fused in to the back story that repeated and expanded in the retelling in each of the books. Quotes attributed thus: CD = City Of The Dead (published 2011), BH = The Bohemian Highway (2013), IB = The Infinite Blacktop (2018).
Where she’s coming from: Brooklyn, NY. That can be useful when working a case outside NY.
They sat up and looked at me. No matter how far downhill it goes into yuppiedom, Brooklyn always impresses people. Between that and the PI business I had a good introduction to anyone under the age of forty who’d ever owned a hip-hop album. [CD, ch13]
We lived in a neighbourhood no one exactly moved to: it was a place you ended up, and then you tried to escape… Our house was a giant and crumbling half a city block from 1950-something that somehow had survived both Robert Moses and the erosion of polite capitalism all around. It was an inheritance. Everything was inherited, work was a dirty word to the DeWitts. There was an old Brooklyn line of the DeWitts, naval officers or whalers or maybe slave traders – the stories changed depending on who was telling them, how much the storyteller had had to drink, and what they wanted out of the listener. [IB, ch.2]
Her best friends were Tracy and Kelly, kids on the block whose families were worse off than her but were cool with the whole business of being girl detectives and solving crimes in New York. Until Tracy disappeared and Kelly got obsessed with her disappearance, the one case the gang couldn’t solve. So the 2 remaining detectives fell out and now Claire is based in San Francisco.
What energised their desire to be investigators and their practice of it, was a crucial found document: a copy of Detection by Jacques Silette, not the only fragment of French Theory to have a profound effect on bookish American youngsters in the 80s.
Tracy, Kelly, and I were detectives. According to Silette, we’d always been detectives, of course, but we’d recognized that fact a few years ago and we’d been solving cases ever since. We’d started off in our neighbourhood in Brooklyn and, as our reputation spread, started taking on cases around the city. Who’d planted the answers to Tuesday’s quiz in Dori’s locker? Who’d stolen Jamal’s weed? Who was Janelle’s real father? Being girl detectives in Brooklyn made cases easy to come by, but solutions were rare and troubling. [BH, ch12]
A world of troubled teens with boyfriends in terrible punk bands, posters of Joe Strummer and bookshelves full of Camus and Philip K.Dick. Kids with problems, kids strung out on drugs half the time. But we don’t see much of that world in the flashbacks, as Claire is now trying to stay focussed on the adult world full of adults with problems and strung out on drugs half the time, whilst herself having problems and being strung out on drugs the other half of the time.
Claire is of course one of those unreliable DeWitt narrators she warned us about: in City Of The Dead she tells us that the girls first found a copy of Silette’s Detection “sitting on the tray of the dumb waiter, waiting for us” when they broke in to the unused south wing of her parents’ house. The south wing was “like the rest of my parents’ house, full of old things and dust”, with a rotting floor and hole in the roof but still full of furniture and closets. In The Infinite Blacktop “we found the book in the attic… dust swirling in the sunlight… pigeons cooing in the eaves.” That’s the sort of slippage that Silette would tell his disciples to watch out for.
“The detective who thinks she’s found the truth is as wrong as the detective who never managed to look for it at all,” Silette wrote. “The truth can never be limited and therefore never found. This is what makes it the only thing worth finding.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, turn to page sixty-eight:
”For the detective whose eyes have truly been opened,” Silette wrote, “the solution to every mystery is never more than a breath away.” [IB ch4.]
Silette was not the start of their lives as detectives, but it changed them. Before then, they had a different role model: Cynthia Silverton, teen detective and junior college student, whose adventures were related in an obscure run of comics printed from 1978-89. The girls were devoted followers of Cynthia before they discovered Jacques.
With Cynthia Silverton as our guide, Tracy had discovered the Clue Of The Broken Light Bulb, which had cost a man his life. Kelly had closed the Case of the Blue Moth at Dawn, which had not ended well for anyone.
But after we read Detection, it all changed. We did everything Silette said and, unlike anything else we’d ever encountered, unlike religion or money or love, it worked. We solved every case we found. But we still couldn’t seem to solve the biggest mystery we had: why no one cared about our cases, no one cared about our solutions, and no one seemed to care about mysteries at all. Didn’t the truth matter? Wasn’t reality different from a lie? The answers from the world at large were no and no one cares. [IB ch4.]
As you can see, Claire gives every Case she worked on a catchy title, and that’s how she records them in her filing system.
Reading Silette was only the start of her apprenticeship as a Silettian, as she moved to New Orleans in 1994 to work with Constance Darling, the sophisticated cosmopolitan former student and confidante of the great man. Constance told her about the inner struggles and troubles of Silette and his group, preparing her for the larger conspiracy that comes to a climax in Infinite Blacktop.
But to get there first of all she moved to San Francisco in 1999 and got registered and accepted by working on old cases of disappearances and altered identities. Her first case in San Francisco is interleaved in The Infinite Blacktop with her latest case, which is occurring in 2011, straight after the events of The Bohemian Highway. City Of The Dead was her return to New Orleans in 2007 to deal with a case down there, The Case Of The Green Parrot, which she is still thinking about at the start of Bohemian Highway.
As well as the details of car theft, credit card theft, and how to select the best marks for either operation, there is a lot of drug-taking and figuring out who to ask in the bar when you need to score. But Claire knows what she’s doing most of the time. Surprises occur in the wreckage of post-Katrina Louisiana, trying to unpick stories of what happened and how everyone behaved in the chaos when their world was ending and they were struggling to get on any raft or ride out to safety. “People kill each other everywhere. The difference was that in New Orleans, no one tried to stop them.” But the obvious solution to why a lawyer in the DA’s office should have disappeared isn’t the right one. At least that’s what Claire realises after a dream in which the dead man tells her to “Follow the clues. Believe nothing. Question everything”… which is also a quote from Detection, as she checks on waking up. The first of many Twin Peaks-flavoured moments in Claire’s world; the figure of “the Red Detective” in Bohemian Highway provides another one.
The Bohemian Highway takes in more social observation around California. The central murder case is amongst the fringes of the indie rock world, and we get a sense of the death of the old vinyl-based universe, and the start of a new age where streaming has wiped out any chance of making a successful career from music… of course the ones who seem to manage it are really living the dream off family money. But that doesn’t protect them from getting shot in an apparent robbery they walked in on. Let’s ask the neighbour what he heard.
The neighbour’s name was Freddie. Freddie was a white man, somewhere between fifty and a million, who seemed like the least happy person on earth. Her seemed like a man who had devoted his life to misery.
He had on a worn bathrobe over pajama bottoms and a T-shirt and fake leather slippers that had seen better days, although I think it would be fair to say that none of their days had been exactly good. We stood on the steps of his house. It was foggy and cold. Living in San Francisco was a war of endurance. I knew many people who had, after years of winning, one day lost the battle with the fog and moved back east or down south.
”With the noise around here,” Freddie said, “I mean, the Mexicans and now these club kids or hipsters or whatever. And the musicians. Everyone’s a musician.”
His kind, the cranky middle-aged white men of the world, weren’t exactly known for their silence, but I let it go. I also didn’t mention that his house was worth approximately a billion dollars and he could easily move to a neighbourhood with fewer Mexican club kids if he chose.
…Maybe all the Mexicans would move out and Freddie could have his shitty neighbourhood back again. Maybe everyone would move out, maybe everyone would die, maybe everyone would realise that life really was as dreary and awful as Freddie told them it was, as it seemed today, and there would be a mass suicide and Freddie could have the whole world to himself. [BH ch.16]
Claire only occasionally attempts Marlowe-style sardonic wit, but you can see that her mood here is as depressed as that other Californian PI was during The Long Goodbye, unsurprising as she was previously in a relationship with the murder victim of this case. Some of her interactions with her assistant Claude have potential to be heartwarming feelgood breaks to leaven the load of the TV adaptation, and the scene where she meets the old guy who’s an expert on Poker chips is very Lynch-for-laffs.
Another echo of The Long Goodbye is the cold fury at the power elite operating nearby.
The Bohemian Club was an all-male club that started in San Francisco as a private club for artists and writers of the upper class and demimonde. Now its members included presidents, ex-presidents, and a litany of shadowy men like Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan, men I knew I was supposed to think were important but didn’t. They met at Bohemian Grove for two weeks every year, and no one knew exactly what they did there. Conspiracy theorists claimed the club drank blood and worshipped Satan, or at least had unauthorized discussions about the federal reserve and tax schedules. Defenders claimed it was just a fun outing of a very selective club. The Bohemians themselves weren’t talking. [BH ch.34]
The tone of these books is not comical or joyful. We are not being expected to take Silette or his coterie as absurd or as charlatans. He is not a parody of Derrida or any other possible source, unless it is a broad parody of French intellectual influence on Americans from semi-privileged backgrounds who set about investigating the culture around them, and discover mainly secrets of their own adolescent formation. They are not self-consciously “metaphysical detective fiction”, a tired idea whose time was some time ago.
Bohemian Highway is a journey downward through depression and Infinite Blacktop is a psychotic break in to a protracted car chase to follow the baddie whilst also tracking back a connection to the source of the Cynthia Silverton comic series itself. There is another possible narrative glitch in chapter 18: we’re told the bad guy has now “ditched the Prius”, but I’m not sure where he ever had it, since he abandoned the Lincoln Continental he had at the start and then got away on foot. Bohemian Highway was told in parallel with a case the girls solved in New York in 1986, while the final instalment has some flashbacks to 1985, as Claire begins to finally unwind the clues to Tracy’s disappearance in 1987. I don’t think it is so simple (or corny) to resolve it all by supposing one or all of these stories are a death vision or just hallucinations, although they are closer to Mulholland Drive than any TV detective. I am in a minority in that I liked the second season of True Detective much more than the first. I thought it missed a trick by not revealing itself as actually set in Hell and full of damned characters sent down for crimes alluded to in their new eternal lives of punishment; there were plenty of oddities that could have been clues for that great reveal, but it didn’t resolve that way. I haven’t seen the 3rd season.
The inspiration for Cynthia Silverton is of course in the world of Nancy Drew and other girl detectives. As we all know, Rip-Off Red Girl Detective was an early work by Kathy Acker set in New York. It was very rude and featured a character called Gaga, which I like to think of as the source of Lady Gaga, against all evidence. American TV versions of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were shown on children’s TV in the UK in the late 70s/early 80s. A Hardy Boys story in which a character was tricked with perceptual illusions to be confused about time and space made a big impression on me at the time, much more than Matthew McConaughey wittering about “time as a flat circle” later on. The only thing I remember about Nancy Drew is that she was played by an actress who was also in Dynasty. There is a debate about how much of an inspirational figure Nancy might be. The picture in the banner is derived from an edition of The Clue In The Crumbling Wall by Carolyn Keene. The title of this Note does not appear anywhere in the Claire DeWitt books, but seems to be latent in them.