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The Infinite Blacktop

Review

The Infinite Blacktop

Imagine Nancy Drew all grown up, with a foul mouth and a penchant for illicit substances, and you’d have Claire DeWitt. The self-proclaimed “best detective in the world,” who has “cracked cases that had ruined lives and saved others,” is back in THE INFINITE BLACKTOP, Sara Gran’s third novel featuring the tough-as-nails mystery solver, and she’s on the run. A vintage Lincoln Continental has just deliberately slammed into her car in Oakland, and she’s determined to find out why. Doing so forces her to look to her past, when she and two friends were precocious girl detectives in their gritty Brooklyn neighborhood, until one suddenly vanished.

As Claire’s latest case takes her from the mean streets of Oakland to the glitz and grime of Las Vegas, the narrative periodically swings back to a mystery she worked on years previously involving a Los Angeles artist who died in a suspicious car crash. (Cars and driving, and the freedom and possibility mixed with destructive power they both represent, are a recurring theme for Gran.) A lesser novelist would have been content to focus on just one of these mysteries, but Gran is more ambitious. The flashbacks to the earlier case, as well as to Red Hook in the 1980s, help us understand the world in which Claire operates and her peculiar outlook on life.

"Gran writes for TV when she’s not churning out novels...and the book shares certain qualities with prestige television --- snappy dialogue, an interlocking, episodic structure, and a complex antihero."

A straightforward whodunit this is not. Yes, Claire does sometimes function a bit like a modern-day Marlowe, especially in the earlier case --- dubbed “The Mystery of the CBSIS” --- where she careens around Los Angeles, holing up in seedy motel rooms and meditating on the city’s geography, where hills and canyons lead to streets “that were never parallel and curved in and across themselves like snakes.” But the core mystery in THE INFINITE BLACKTOP isn’t who killed the artist Merritt Underwood. It’s not even who wants Claire dead (it’s clear early on who the would-be murderer is) or why she’s a target. Rather, the big mystery is Claire herself.

Claire might be an unusually gifted detective, but she’s also a mess. Her relationships are largely transactional (the closest thing she has to a friend is her assistant, Claude). She pops pills like candy and has a healthy disrespect for the law, stealing cars like some women reapply lipstick. Behind it all seems to be a yawning spiritual emptiness, a sense that she doesn’t quite know who she is. Strip away the cold cases and criminals, and what she’s really on the hunt for is the truth about herself. “Who are you if you start again?” she wonders.

Some part of the answer seems to lie in a rare comic book Claire and her friends were obsessed with as girls, the Cynthia Silverton Mystery Digest, which features the tales of a plucky teen detective. When Claire finally gets her hands on the lost final issue of Cynthia’s adventures, we find the young sleuth trying to discover the answer to a deceptively simple question: “Who are you?” It’s no accident that Claire’s childhood hero is asking the same questions that preoccupy Claire. The comics, which arrived in Claire’s and her friends’ lives in a mysterious way, are more than what they seem, a thread that leads back to the one mystery that Claire hasn’t yet solved: What happened to her friend and detective-in-arms Tracy?

Gran writes for TV when she’s not churning out novels (THE INFINITE BLACKTOP is her sixth), and the book shares certain qualities with prestige television --- snappy dialogue, an interlocking, episodic structure, and a complex antihero. Claire is far from likable. In fact, she’s so edgy that it’s a bit exhausting at times. Those who prefer their detectives logical and their mysteries wrapped up in a neat bow will be frustrated by her antics, which occasionally veer into self-consciously quirky territory. But readers who are willing to follow along for the ride will find much to entertain them in this ongoing series.

So, does Claire finally solve The Case of the Infinite Blacktop? Yes and no. But perhaps solving the mystery isn’t really the point, as Gran suggests. “We can only be happy in that moment when the dice are in the air, when everything is a mystery, when we can continue in ignorance,” writes fictional French detective Jacques Silette in DÉTECTION, the book that inspired Claire’s PI career. Gran excels at keeping those dice in the air.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on September 21, 2018

The Infinite Blacktop
by Sara Gran

  • Publication Date: September 18, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Noir
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1501165712
  • ISBN-13: 9781501165719