BookBrowse Reviews The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Feral Detective

A Novel

by Jonathan Lethem

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem X
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Nov 2018, 336 pages

    Aug 2019, 336 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez
Buy This Book

About this Book



A woman leaves her Manhattan enclave in search of a friend's errant daughter and finds more than she bargained for in California's High Desert.

I fell in love with Jonathan Lethem's writing when I read Motherless Brooklyn, twice. And while I have loved all of his novels since, I've really been waiting for another mystery. Happily. Ecstatically. This is it! The one I've been waiting for.

Okay. It's not quite a mystery in the traditional sense, but that is Lethem's ultimate charm. The plot isn't so much a whodunit as it is a whoisit. In this case, impromptu amateur sleuth Phoebe Siegler meets professional private eye Charles Heist, aka the eponymous Feral Detective, in a land that is way outside her comfort zone. It's the tornadic days following the January 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump, and a pre-apocalyptic panic has hit Siegler and her fellow Manhattanite liberals. The fact that Phoebe and the new President share a hometown makes her feel like New York City is no longer habitable.

Among her coworkers at the New York Times, Phoebe becomes known as "The Girl Who Quit" after throwing a whopping temper tantrum: "I conceived my quitting…I actually opened my yawp and did it, made a perverse stand on principle, stunning myself and those in range of hearing. The hate in my heart was amazing. I blamed my city for producing and being unable to defeat the monster in the tower." With limited (read, no) immediate prospects, she is open to whatever possibilities present themselves. So after Arabella, the college-age daughter of a friend, goes AWOL from her California campus, Phoebe volunteers to travel west to locate and retrieve the girl. At this point the novel becomes a cross between Lethem's Chronic City and The Wizard of Oz. Though Phoebe is not seeking a bogus Wizard so much as she is running from one.

Her first stop upon reaching the eastern confines of the Golden State is to locate Mr. Heist. (I do enjoy Lethem's Dickensian names.) Talk about backdrop shock! If New York City felt uncomfortable, this locale feels extraterrestrial. Upon arriving at Heist's address, she notes that, "On the right, behind cyclone fence, [was] a tundra of pits and heaped hills of gravel…In this wasteland the building seemed fake. It claimed a context where none was possible. I mean, human beings, ones you'd want to be or know." As a former Midwesterner transplanted to the southwestern desert I could identify with what follows. " [T]he blue," she says, "was killing me. I don't mean the blues, as in the white girl blues…It was the blue of the sky that was killing me, that and the way, across the street, with no sense of proportion or taste, snow capped peaks argued intricately with the flat galactic blue." All of this feels so foreign as to be eerily cinematic.

Naturally, once Phoebe meets Heist he becomes a character no less starkly colorful than his environs. When she tells him she's there to find a missing girl, he responds by saying, "who's not missing?" She muses, "He was prone to these low-ebb oracular remarks," and learns to like them. He's a genuine one-of-a-kind; a middle-aged man with a face like a "breathing woodcut" who cares for an opossum named Jean afflicted with a urinary tract infection and delivers survival materials to people living off-the-grid in the nearby mountains. Phoebe not only learns to like his remarks, but him too.

As the duo carefully wend their way among the feuding makeshift clans – including the warlike Bear people and peaceful Rabbit people - of the mountains, along with a variety of other off-gridders, the chapters don't flow so much as lurch from one "aha" moment to the next. Because it soon becomes clear that Phoebe is searching as much for herself as she is Arabella. At one point she explains, "The effect of being off the grid wasn't so different, I now understood, from the result of being of being too much on it. Self-invention prevailed." Eventually, she understands Glinda's words to Dorothy, that she's always had the power she needs to find her heart's desire. Phoebe's Oz is both every bit as bizarre and as normal as Manhattan. Everyone is looking for that part of themselves that they feel is missing.

I will give away no spoilers that might ruin your moment at the end but the journey is not unlike Chase Insteadman's in Chronic City or Dorothy's. Maybe it is a little more nihilistic because times, as well as the Times have changed. But Phoebe's quest and her personal evolution speak volumes about what happens when a person's ship of life comes unmoored.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2018, and has been updated for the September 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Living Off the Grid


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked The Feral Detective, try these:

  • The Golden State jacket

    The Golden State

    by Lydia Kiesling

    Published 2019

    About this book

    A gorgeous, raw debut novel about a young woman braving the ups and downs of motherhood in a fractured America.

  • Bad Country jacket

    Bad Country

    by CB McKenzie

    Published 2016

    About this book

    The newest winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize, a debut mystery set in the Southwest starring a former rodeo cowboy turned private investigator, told in a transfixingly original style.

Read-Alikes are one of the many benefits of membership. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
More books by Jonathan Lethem
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes

BookBrowse Sale!

Join BookBrowse and discover exceptional books for just $3/mth!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Wifedom
    by Anna Funder
    When life became overwhelming for writer, wife, and mother Anna Funder in the summer of 2017, she ...
  • Book Jacket: The Fraud
    The Fraud
    by Zadie Smith
    In a recent article for The New Yorker, Zadie Smith joked that she moved away from London, her ...
  • Book Jacket: Wasteland
    by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
    Globally, we generate more than 2 billion tons of household waste every year. That annual total ...
  • Book Jacket: Disobedient
    by Elizabeth Fremantle
    Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi led a successful career as an artist throughout the ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
Fair Rosaline
by Natasha Solomons
A subversive, powerful untelling of Romeo and Juliet by New York Times bestselling author Natasha Solomons.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Wren, the Wren
    by Anne Enright

    An incandescent novel about the inheritance of trauma, wonder, and love across three generations of women.

  • Book Jacket

    Digging Stars
    by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

    Blending drama and satire, Digging Stars probes the emotional universes of love, friendship, family, and nationhood.

Win This Book
Win Moscow X

25 Copies to Give Away!

A daring CIA operation threatens chaos in the Kremlin. But can Langley trust the Russian at its center?



Solve this clue:

A M I A Terrible T T W

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.