Gran continues to reinvent the crime novel with her latest, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, in which her inimitable protagonist follows a tangled web of cases involving the murder of Claire’s musician ex-boyfriend, the mysterious theft of a group of miniature horses, and a trip down the rabbit hole of her own psyche.
Your protagonist, Claire Dewitt, faces horrible trials, heartbreak, dissolution and self-destruction, a flirtation with the precipice, and a turn back towards life. Did you mean to echo a classic hero’s journey?
That was very intentional, although I’d been thinking of it more over the course of the series (although you’re absolutely right that it works in this book as a stand-alone, which I hadn’t realized or planned). There are so few good quest stories for girls! We have Alice and Dorothy and that’s about it. I made a deliberate decision when I started the series to take what I felt were latent mythological/mythopoetic themes in the detective story and make them bigger
There’s a great riff in your new book on the bodhisattva—that in some ways the detective fulfills that role. Is detective work is a calling, a spiritual path for Claire?
It is absolutely a riff on the bodhisattva; the idea that someone can live a life to serve others, and in fact have chosen to live for just this purpose. What does that feel like? What is it like to have a calling that supersedes all else, even/especially personal happiness? In what ways is the very idea of personal happiness a trap? Is there another, better way to live than lurching from personal victory to physical pleasure and around again? These issues are very much on Claire’s mind.
While Claire pursues several different cases in Bohemian Highway, the heart of the book seemed to be a love story. Would you agree?
I think it’s a book about love more than a love story, much in the same way I think of these books as a series that’s about a detective rather than a detective series. It’s about the different kinds of love and the impossibility of really understanding how to interpret these feelings, or the best way to act on them. We like to think that once we fall in love everything falls in place, but all you have to do is glance around you to see that isn’t true.
I loved Claude, Claire’s new assistant. Any insights into that character? Do you see Claire and Claude as mirrors of each other in certain ways?
When creating Claude I did like the idea of someone entirely different from Claire being struck by this material (Jacques Silette’s Détection, the book of investigative techniques and theories that serves as their guiding star) and having to go through some struggle to accept it. Claire had nothing to lose when she encountered Silette and his ideas; Claude is giving up a lot. But Claude is also not as naturally inclined to the tough life of a detective as Claire. I think/hope they complement each other well. They are, in many ways, the best friend each other has ever had.
Dashiell Hammett made the point that there is another world underneath us all the time, a violent, lawless world governed by chaos; occasionally, he writes, “we take the lid off to reveal the works.” This is a constant theme in noir. Does Claire subscribe to that theory?
That’s so interesting—I would say yes, she does agree with that, especially if you kind of put it in different frames or different sizes. For example, certainly most people have a violent and chaotic world in their own psyche. I was talking with a friend the other night about how this plays out in physical spaces: a lot of us have a storage space or closet or garage that kind of takes on the role of our subconscious; we make this big mess and just stick all the stuff we don’t want to deal with in there. And this is true of communities, too—all the poverty and crime and illicit pleasure used to be shoved into cities, although of course all that is changing now and slowly it’s becoming poor suburban communities that are providing these zones of chaos. I think this idea is the key to what noir is—you make one wrong turn and you’re in a whole different world, with different rules, and you’re got to try to stay alive. And, as Chandler was maybe the first to point out, the detective is the person who can navigate all of these different worlds; the detective is not scared by what she finds in the world of chaos, but also not scared of or intimidated by the “above ground” world of law and order. Most people are trapped in one or the other, right?