Some of the best detective fiction succeeds on the strength of the protagonist’s personality and not necessarily his or her problem-solving skills. Thanks to the hardboiled attitude of Philip Marlowe, or Sherlock Holmes’ arrogant practice of pedantic parlor tricks, neither needed to actually solve crimes to capture readers’ fancy. That’s why many keep coming back despite the fact that the solutions of Marlowe and Holmes (as devised by Chandler and Doyle, of course) are often either too complicated or too ingeniously arbitrary, respectively, to fully make sense. Jonathan Lethem should be commended, then, for coming up with a character as intriguing as Lionel Essrog, a detective suffering from a severe case of obsessive-compulsive Tourette Syndrome. Driven but not handicapped by dozens of unique tics—he kisses people, touches their shoulders, obsesses over the number six, and blurts out variations on words (“Eatmebailey!”) that strike his fancy—he makes an odd investigator. In a way, he’s more of a detective by default: One of four orphans frequently enlisted by small-time hood Frank Minna, Essrog and his fellow “Minna Men” find themselves tangentially involved in a life of petty crime from an early age. Consequently, when his father figure is murdered, Essrog is compelled to find the man responsible. Yet in many ways, his quest is related to the need for closure demanded by his illness: His mind literally won’t rest until the case is closed. Since the sleuthing is the least interesting element of Motherless Brooklyn, it’s fortunate that Essrog is such a fascinating presence: His plight is both funny and sad as he stumbles toward a relatively clumsy conclusion that necessitates about 12 straight pages of explanation. Everyone else in the story seems to think Essrog is either stupid or insane—the reader is almost exclusively privy to his street smarts and intelligence—and Lethem’s virtuoso handling of his protagonist’s tics doesn’t hurt. (The rights to a film version already belong to Edward Norton, the kind of actor who would eat this stuff up onscreen.) Essrog’s dialogue is constantly kaleidoscoping, a combination of word games, anagrams, and sheer gibberish with a rhythm all its own. Lethem conveniently sets up a sequel, and Motherless Brooklyn deserves it.
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