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The Feral Detective


The Feral Detective

Jonathan Lethem never fails to surprise, please and astound. His novels straddle genres and create their own, combining elements of mystery, science fiction and what is known as so-called “serious” fiction that challenges, puzzles and makes demands while requiring full attention, regardless of the subject matter. This ranges from the speculative fiction of AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE, where love meets quantum physics, to his star turn on the revival of Steve Gerber’s Omega: The Unknown for Marvel Comics. That brings us to Lethem’s newly published novel, THE FERAL DETECTIVE, where once again he exceeds the expectations he has previously created with a mildly flawed masterpiece.

If there is a problem with the book, it lies with the narrator, Phoebe Siegler, who comes off as a whiner (albeit with a noble cause) of transcontinental proportions. Little escapes her scattershot complaints, whether it be election results or the lack of availability of coffee in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I kept finding myself reaching for a mute button that wasn’t there. It’s unfortunate because Phoebe is the conduit through which we interestingly and plausibly find Charles Heist, the feral detective of this otherwise wonderful and riveting piece.

"Heist is indeed enigmatic, a will-o’-the-wisp gumshoe who is rough-edged, grimy and appealing. Lethem has created one of those books in which the reader stops frequently and asks, 'How did he come up with that?'"

Phoebe, a New Yorker, is not without her positive attributes, one of which is loyalty. Arabella Swados, the daughter of her best friend, Roslyn, disappears gradually and then suddenly from college in Oregon. It’s one of those small private enclaves that are perpetual motion machines for the dispensing of useless degrees, and a dropout is not exactly unusual. There are hints as to where Arabella may have gone, so Phoebe travels to Los Angeles to track down the young woman. The police, alas, are not much interested. Arabella may be gone, but she is of age, there is no indication that foul play is involved, and it is not against the law for an adult to disappear of their own free will.

With her mission in dire straits, Phoebe receives a referral from a social worker and finds herself walking up a flight of stairs to the second story of a strip mall to retain one of the strangest private investigators that she (or any reader) would be likely to encounter. This would be Heist. Their meeting is a quietly unsettling tableau that sets the tone for the rest of the book, which reads like a mashup of Jerzy Kosinski, Thomas Pynchon and Carlos Castaneda with an occasional contribution from Joan Didion. Heist is taciturn, not given to clever turns of phrase or ostentatious displays of knowledge at the drop of a fedora; he is quietly competent, and dangerously so.

It is not revealing too much to say that Heist assists Phoebe in locating and recovering Arabella, but at great personal jeopardy to himself. However, once Phoebe has reunited mother and daughter in New York, she flies back across the country to embark upon her own rescue of Heist, with whom she has become physically and emotionally involved. There are nightmarish vignettes throughout all of this, scenes and dialogue that make the book and its protagonist --- the unfortunately all-too-often absent Heist --- one of a kind.

Heist is indeed enigmatic, a will-o’-the-wisp gumshoe who is rough-edged, grimy and appealing. Lethem has created one of those books in which the reader stops frequently and asks, “How did he come up with that?” One has to wonder if the characters and events encountered in THE FERAL DETECTIVE have real-world models or are the product of Lethem's considerable imagination. Perhaps the answer is both. Regardless, I’d like to see much more of Heist in the future.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 9, 2018

The Feral Detective
by Jonathan Lethem

  • Publication Date: August 27, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062859072
  • ISBN-13: 9780062859075