Phoebe Siegler hires investigator Charles Heist to help her find her friend’s missing daughter, Arabella, and the unlikely pair navigates the California desert to locate Arabella, who is caught in the middle of a violent standoff that only Heist, mysteriously, can end.
The good news is that Lethem is back in the PI game, and there is no bad news. The Feral Detective is one of his nimblest novels, a plunky voyage into the traumatized soul of the Trump era ... his celebrated parody of hard-boiled detective fiction is now distilled to a clear amber spirit ... The elements of detective fiction fit in Lethem’s hands as comfortably as a snub-nose .38. He can hit an old Ross Macdonald motif at 50 yards ... This Jerry-rigged contraption of Sam Spade and Mad Max could buckle under the weight of pretension and political anger, but The Feral Detective is too agile for that—thanks to its narrator, Phoebe. She’s sharp and sassy and always willing to confess her own contradictory feelings, which sway erratically from lust to terror. It’s a pleasure to see a smart writer having so much grisly fun ... What’s more, the plot maintains its centripetal acceleration, easily soaring over those swamps of Lethemian introspection that sometimes swallowed his previous novels ... Who can really be saved in our collapsing society is the question that rumbles below these pages, but the story races along so fast you’ll barely notice you’ve entered such dark territory till it’s too late to head back.
There’s a good book lurking in this material ... The Feral Detective is not it. This one begins losing parts out on the interstate almost immediately. The plot is shaggy and complicated; so much so that even the author loses interest in it ... This novel’s tone is closer to that of Elmore Leonard. It’s got a bit of boogie in its bones. Yet it utterly lacks the density and sure-footedness of Motherless Brooklyn. A central problem is that Phoebe is a ditz ... Lethem never gives her anything impudent, urgent or surprising to say or think or feel ... Lethem is such a generous and ingenious writer that it’s painful to watch him flounder. Is it time to worry that literary novels will be among the next casualties of Trump Derangement Syndrome?
Jonathan Lethem’s new book is described by his publisher as his 'first detective novel' since Motherless Brooklyn, his 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner. But attempts to pass off either book as genre fiction seem off the mark ... The Feral Detective tries just as hard [as Motherless Brooklyn] for offbeat scenarios and effects, but it doesn’t feel as meticulously engineered ... The voice of the book’s narrator, however, is engaging, and Lethem’s conjurations of the obscure California locales his heroine digs into couldn’t be more vivid.