Read as part of CBR11 Bingo: Listicle. “20 Best Crime Novels of 2018” -crimereads.com
It’s interesting to me that Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective made CrimeReads.com’s list of 20 best crime novels of 2018 considering how widely panned it was. Many reviewers said some variety of “How can the man who wrote Motherless Brooklyn produce such dreck?”
I think such sentiment comes with unfortunately high expectations. I read Motherless Brooklyn earlier this year. It was excellent, definitely one of the best things I read in 2019. And it made me want to give The Feral Detective another try after I had crapped out on it at the end of last year. What also likely goosed the expectations of this book was the writer producing another unconventional mystery tale but this time against the backdrop of the election of Donald Trump.
So yeah, this isn’t Motherless Brooklyn and it’s also probably not the (Obi-Wan voice) Trump-era Detective Tale you’re looking for. Still, Lethem is doing something interesting here with his lead character Phoebe, a pushing-30 Manhattanite millennial who, like many, was devastated by Trump’s election. I was impressed at how well he was able to inhabit the voice of someone my era without being too condescending or cloying. He captured the zeitgeist of January 2017 perfectly. I was having bad flashbacks.
The problem with the book is not the lead, the problem is the co-star and how the mystery unfolds. I just didn’t completely buy Phoebe’s relationship with the titular character, and thus, I could not really get into the concept of the book, which largely is about rescuing people from difficult circumstances and how that is reflected in Phoebe’s life. I’d like to say more but there’s not much I can give away without spoilers. But because the relationship is at the heart of the book, it’s what the book relies on for narrative thrust. And it didn’t work for me. So, I was left with was a sympathetic protagonist (at least to me, I can understand how plenty of readers would find Phoebe annoying) going through a story that wasn’t clicking as well as the writer had hoped. The only thing that kept going was Lethem’s talents as a writer. He knows how to build an atmosphere and write an internal monologue.
Yeah this book should have been something different and thus probably better. But if you can let go of that and accept it for what it is, you may be surprised. It’s an easy read.