By Jonathan Lethem – Jonathan Lethem, who has been called one of America’s greatest storytellers, returns to crime fiction with this new novel, The Feral Detective. It opens with the narrator, Manhattanite Phoebe Siegler, searching for her best friend’s teenage daughter, Arabella, who has disappeared from Reed College. Her trail has led to the small California town of Upland, east of Los Angeles. It’s at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, a short drive to the mountains’ highest peak, Mount Baldy, and within striking distance of wilderness and desert, vividly described settings as bleak and untamed as the situations Phoebe will encounter.
The local police, loathe to put any energy into a search for Arabella, pass Phoebe on to a social worker who specializes in runaways, and the social worker refers her to The Feral Detective, Charles Heist. Phoebe’s told that, though Heist’s methods may be unorthodox, he’s a good man on a cold trail, an expert in rescuing runaways and teenagers snared in cults or human trafficking networks. In fact, Phoebe learns, one such teen lives in an armoire in his office.
Heist’s unique set of skills and experiences sets you up for a strange romp through the underbelly of California society. Scanning Heist’s unpromising office building, Phoebe says,“To make an appointment here was to have dropped through the floor of your life, out of ordinary time. You weren’t meant to be here at all, if you were me.”
Phoebe’s New York temperament is distinctly at odds with that of the Californians, and she’s pegged it; she wasn’t meant to be there. But Phoebe already has dropped through the floor of her life, first by quitting her job at a major newspaper because she couldn’t tolerate the prospect of the Trump presidency. She can’t fathom why the Californians aren’t similarly outraged.
She’s thirty-three, with no immediate employment prospects, a lot of anger, and dubious romantic feelings about Charles Heist. Her reflexive wisecracking is balanced by despair, a weak shield against reality. Lethem lets her be defensive, show poor judgment, and lash out when it would be better not to. She’s not perfect.
Road trips into the area surrounding Upland, with and without Heist, lead her to some sketchy places and characters. Heist has mysterious connections with these troubled people that the New Yorker cannot understand. Phoebe is drawn to the taciturn feral detective, though their mismatched relationship seems most likely to go awry. But perhaps he can give her the anchor in life she so obviously needs.
Lethem writes strong prose, with more than a sprinkling of appreciation for the ridiculous. Lovers of literary crime fiction will find Lethem has created interesting and engaging characters in Phoebe and Heist, as well as an array of distinctive secondary characters—and some dogs—whose fates are worth caring about. He never lets up in describing people, places, situations, and feelings in fresh and memorable ways. Several review sites included it among the top crime books of 2018, though I’ve noted that Amazon readers don’t much like it and seem to have missed the humor altogether.
Lethem’s previous detective fiction, Motherless Brooklyn, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was narrated by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome—sympathetically. In this new work, the characters are less overtly damaged, but the damage is there, not far below the surface.
rabbit photo by wbaiv, creative commons license
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