Sunday, February 7, 2010

February Fiction Part II: Detective Novel

What I like are books in their homely actuality—the insides of the books, the mysterious movements of characters and situations and the emotions that accompany those movements. The play of sentences, their infinite variety.--Jonthan Lethem on books.

I found this book, oddly, through a true crime story about books. The author wrote about books as objects, things we love, which I can really understand. She made an example of a book called Motherless Brooklyn and told about how her teenage daughter took it to camp with her and dropped it in a river but she could not part with it--even when ruined.

The title was interesting, and that a teenage girl at camp loved it so much that she took it to camp held some intrigue for me, so I requested it from the library. I found myself cracking open the first detective novel I have opened in a long long time for I am not a big fan of mysteries or the detective genre. To sum it up, there are just too many details to keep track of, and I tend to be an impatient reader. What? Who is this guy? I vaguely recall him 100 pages back and now he is the prime suspect?! I am always too lazy to go back and figure it out so there I am stuck in the middle of a crime novel, confused and frustrated.

The description intrigued me though. The main character was a man beset by Tourette’s Syndrome, and I was curious how a man with Tourette’s would behave and how it would affect a detective novel. I have often tried to write about epilepsy and how it effects the brain and behavior, so perhaps I had something to learn.

This book appears to be popular and well known. Jonathan Lethem wrote it in 1999 after he had had several successful science fiction novels (detective science fiction!). He received much praise and awards for this novel including a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and a Golden Dagger. It seems I am the last to hear of him and his work.

I waded in carefully. It took me awhile to get hooked in the story and yes, true to my prejudice there were times when I got completely lost. In this sense the plot did not do anything for me. It unfolded much the way any detective novel unfolds: murder, unwitting witness to murder becomes amateur sleuth and meets all sorts of unsavory characters who threaten to kill him until a final showdown with the most unlikely of them.

But, what is remarkable about this novel is the hero, Lionel Essrog, who solves the mystery of the murder of his father figure Frank Minna. I read the book to see how a writer could portray and help a reader to understand the complex neurological problem of Tourette's, and I was not disappointed. Lethem helps us to understand where Tourette's comes from and how it works in someone's brain. Further, we see how the the day to day tics of tourette's guide Lionel through his life, and we witness the humiliation Lionel suffers at the hands of friends and strangers who see him as nothing more than a freak.

Lionel Essrog has become for me a truly memorable and sympathetic character. I would love to read another detective story starring this man. Maybe next time he will even get the girl.

What's your favorite work of detective fiction?

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