The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran

Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

At times crime fiction seems a genre so powerful that it sucks in and revitalises other forms. At others, literary fiction appears to piggyback expediently on the thriller or whodunit to expand its popularity – that is to say, its market. It must be a good few years now since any attentive reader accepted an impregnable Trump-style wall between generic, or ‘popular’, and ‘serious’ writing. The late cultural tsunami labelled Postmodernism celebrated a steamy mix of modalities, getting quite carried away with it but showing some fresh perspectives, and its influence lingers like the memory of tobacco smoke.  The Infinite Blacktop operates in two registers, freely mingled or alternated. One throws into the hopper the ingredients of noir fiction: shadowy urban environments, conspiracy and betrayal, perverse desires, gender conflict, near-unfathomable plots and so forth. The other siphons magic into the equation, softening both the clue-based logic of the murder mystery and the ‘grittiness’ of the hard-boiled, realistic crime novel, so that the impossible becomes plausible in the service of a detective’s quest.

The detective here is, in her own words, ‘the world’s greatest detective’, Claire DeWitt, her third appearance in a series (I have not read the previous ones) and the author has lucidly explained her hybrid rationale in an interview with Mystery People:

two desires — the desire to build a specific, evocative, slightly magical world that hopefully provokes some thought and emotion in the reader about their own world, and the desire to be absolutely true to this character as she presents herself in my brain — inform each other and work together to create the world of these books.

Take that on board as a reader and you’re off to the races, almost literally so, since the story moves at speed as it ‘streams’ three of Claire’s cases sporadically over time and space with gruelling, near-reckless impetus of a road movie. And as in a road movie, or in such standout works of classical American literature such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the value and meaning of the story lie as much in the journey as the destination, if not more so. Claire does not invariably solve her cases, though she tabulates them with names that play entertainingly in passing on the title formats favoured by some heavy hitters of the detective genre (Conan Doyle and Erle Stanley Gardner for two). My personal favourites include The Clue of the Broken Light Bulb and  the Case of the Blue Moth at Dawn, while the interleaved section headings used in this novel are ‘The Mystery of the CBSIS’, ‘The Clue of the Charnel House’ and ‘The Case of the Infinite Blacktop’.

Overall, Claire faces hostile forces, survives conflict and succeeds in nailing the guilty. But if she has a code that guides her ethically in her profession, it’s an elastic one that allows her to defy conventional morality to the point of becoming a criminal where it’s expedient, and it’s always expedient when she feels like it. She steals, she uses banned substances, she steals banned substances, she is not always the most sisterly of women and casual, opportunist sex is on her menu. This amorality teamed with a fierce, belligerent dedication to ego-serving personal achievements tended to put me in mind of Norman Mailer (of all people!) and I found it intriguing that the author cites as one of her inspirations Nelson Algren – hardly the most reconstructed of heterosexual male writers despite his fling with Simone de Beauvoir, but a gifted and humane chronicler of the underbelly of US society – marginals, criminals, misfits, whores, junkies, outcasts – who deserves a higher reputation as a novelist than he currently enjoys.

Is this a picture of the intrepid, ‘feisty’, self-empowering heroine offering a role model to young female readers?  She certainly defies ruling protocols to break the law (which as any fule kno too often enshrines male privilege) without compunction, though at the same time she needs to secure her PI’s licence through satisfying the requirements of the California Bureau of Investigative Services and Security, putting in the qualifying hours of legwork for a mainstream detective agency. She lives in contradiction, and thrives.

A liberated woman, then, but to some degree overshadowing Claire’s autonomy is the legendary Jacques Silette, a mentor and supreme authority on the art and science of detection, whose book Détection, is the last word on the subject. Seemingly a fictional amalgam of Freud, Sartre and an American self-help guru, he is an anti-Holmes who counts on cloudy, bromidic aphorisms rather than deductive reasoning: ‘If life gave you answers outright… they would be meaningless. Each detective must take her clues and solve her mystery for herself. No one can solve your mystery for you; a book cannot tell you the way.’ Nonetheless, Claire accepts Détection as ‘the bricks of truth’ with which to ‘build your road.’

And off down the blacktop we go, ‘like it would go on forever, any destination always out of reach, the moment at hand always wasted, happiness always further down the road, never now. But for a quick moment that wasn’t true… and like maybe beauty was possible, even–especially–under the bright light of truth.’ You don’t have to be a Postmodernist to realise that truth is a problematic concept and can be a difficult butterfly to net, but Claire pursues her quest with an almost frightening energy and commitment. The Infinite Blacktop is a hard ride, but an invigorating one. Equal-opportunity mayhem?  Oh yes.

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible. 

Sara Gran, The Infinite Blacktop, (Faber & Faber, 2018). 978-0571336609, 290 pp., hardback.

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