Walking in the dark

‘Each detective, alone in the woods, must take her clues, and solve her mysteries for herself’ –Jacques Silette, Détection (Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway – Sara Grann)

‘Do you read mystery novels?’

‘Not usually.’

‘I just read this one recently, I think you’d really like it.’

I scribbled down the recommendation – Claire DeWitt and The City of The Dead, Sara Gran, vowing to order it from the library when I got home. A week or so later, I picked the book up. It looked like a mystery novel – a large paperback with a blurry red and black cover, thin pages stained with dribbles of coffee. Not usually my taste, but I trusted my friend’s word. She didn’t take her recommendations lightly and I had yet to be disappointed by them.

The book was good. The book was more than good – it sucked me in and all I could think about, weeks later, were clues. Claire DeWitt, ‘the world’s greatest private eye’, stubbornly solves cases on her own terms, guided/haunted by the philosophy of French detective Jacques Silette, author of her bible, Détection.Clues are all. Clues shed light. She dreams them. For her, for Silette, mysteries aren’t straight forward – solving them isn’t the point. No such thing as coincidences. As I delved deeper into the book, DeWitt’s voice blurred with my own. I started dreaming clues, and combing through – or illuminating, strange coincidences. I made myself dizzy thinking about odd moments, the ties that connect us, however tenuous.

I’m not a detective, but I like clues. I like digging. I like patterns and connections. I love that snowball feeling of discovering one thing, unsure of where it will lead you to next. As you keep digging, another world maps out in front of you. I’m restless. I fixate, I want to know everything, anything, if only for a moment.

I don’t dig to solve mysteries; I dig to piece myself together.

When DeWitt and her friends discover a copy of Détection in the backroom of her family home, their lives are changed forever and they can never turn back. Something ignites in each of them, as if the words were written for them alone. Throughout her life, DeWitt encounters fellow Silette devotees, all of whom have been shaped by the book. At first, Détection is unassuming – the thin black book turns up in second-hand shops, in other people’s bookshelves, but they’re all drawn to it. Not everyone who reads the book has the same reaction as DeWitt, but those who do become lifelong believers.

Followers of Silette are deeply connected, wayward kindred spirits.

I know how DeWitt felt. I have my own Silette.

I also found her in a book.

I spent the majority of my teen years hiding in libraries, flicking through books and CDs and magazines, looking for answers to questions I couldn’t quite articulate. The dull pain of longing gnawed inside my chest, occasionally intensifying to remind my body that it existed, remaining unanswered.

Clutching a black guitar case to her body, a black and white Kristin Hersh peered out from the pages of a book tucked away in the back of the library, the non-fiction section. I had never heard of her or her band Throwing Muses before but there she was, accompanied by an interview and a short memoir. Reading it felt like flicking fast through pages of someone else’s photo album, strange snapshots quickly becoming familiar. In it, she talked about writing music as a physical release; songs bolted through her mind and would shake her awake at night. But it was the block of lyrics under the heading that struck me.

There are plenty of lyrics that resonate with a quiet, lonely fourteen year old, but these sunk in deeper. Even out of context, without hearing a single second of a song, the words leapt out and burnt with familiarity, like a mirror of my own thoughts. If I was DeWitt, I would have framed this as a sign and neatly added it to my collection and moved on. But I wasn’t and I am not, so I kept on digging. I headed back to the library.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. A mid-career effort after the band had shrunken to a power trio, University was a good starting point. I liked it – heady, like diving underwater and breathing out. In her scratchy voice, Hersh delivered lines that didn’t make linear sense but they weren’t nonsense; they were more like code, ripped up sentences. Heavy on the reverb with a surfy kick, the album was enough for me to hunt for anything else Hersh had released.

Drum patterns matched my palpitations. Song fragments caught like splinters, hooking into thoughts and worming their way into half-forgotten memories. I wrote their lyrics over and over, abstract mantras that feel like a key, unlocking something. I felt like their songs have been etched into me for my entire life.

The Muses are mine. Maybe they’re yours too, in which case you know exactly what I’m talking about. They’re a special band. They’re knotty. Messy and surreal. Can you be a casual Throwing Muses fan? I don’t know, I don’t think so. They’re an intensely personal band, a headphones band. I feel uncomfortable when other people are listening – what if they don’t get it? I can hear what they may be hearing; on a surface level, the imagery is graphically violent and the vocals scrape like torn-off fingernails. The Muses are hypnotic. They scare. Their first album is scary. Frantic tempos and shrieking about death and rabbits and blowjobs. It’s not inviting.

But whenever I feel like I’m fading or unravelling, I dig up a Throwing Muses album, pull my headphones on and wait, physically feeling restored.

Hersh is my Silette; her band, Throwing Muses, are my Détection.

On a surface level, Throwing Muses were just a four piece rock band who crawled out of the New England indie scene in the 80s, all fuzz pedals and second-hand clothes. Their sound isn’t alien for that time – you can hear flecks of REM, Husker Du and Meat Puppets in their guitar lines. They’re not totally obscure either – the first American band to sign to 4AD, the occasional appearance on MTV’s 120 minutes, songs slipped into teen flick soundtracks. Rifle around through the stacks of old music magazines and find their faces peering out of long-tossed copies of Melody Maker and Spin.

But they are somewhat hidden now. Even with the recent sweep of ’90s nostalgia (that hasn’t seemed to have stopped since the ’90s), they’ve been untouched. Their friends and contemporaries – The Pixies, The Breeders, have been dug up and successfully revived, their sounds echo in the latest crop of bands. Undoubtedly, people do listen to the Muses, but it still feels special whenever meeting another fan; I’ve only met a few in the flesh.

The friend who recommended the Claire DeWitt series to me was also the first Throwing Muses fan I ever met. As soon as she mentioned them, unprovoked, I flipped out and immediately asked her to keep in touch. A week or so later, I received a letter, a few zines and a photograph of her rabbit – ‘my Russian familiar’, written neatly on the other side. We wrote letters for years, meeting up when were in the same city; every conversation we had revealed another clue, another link. The Muses and Hersh weren’t our only shared taste, and not the most uncommon either. Joan Aiken short stories, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, lost Sydney band The Plug Uglies; fuel for the quiet observer, always on the outside looking in.

Songs aren’t mysterious; they’re mysteries, not daring to reveal themselves after one listen. I feel pulled together when I listen to the right one. Something clicks – with the right note, the right line, I’m awake.


Chiara Grassia is a writer; her heart belongs in Portland, Oregon but all her stuff is in Canberra, Australia.

Image: Will Folsom

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