Lionel Essrog

Created by Jonathan Lethem

When we last encountered author Jonathan Lethem in the P.I. waters, he was amusing us with various pistol-packing marsupials in Gun, With Occasional Music (1995), a wide-open sci-fi spoof/parody/tribute of the private eye genre, featuring private inquisitor Conrad Metcalf, or spinning metafictional tall tales about a P.I. tracking down the source of a dirty joke in 1996’s “The One About The Green Detective”.

Now he’s back, kicking out the jams with another intriguing private eye, LIONEL “FREAKSHOW” ESSROG. Lionel’s a Brooklyn P.I. suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, tracking down the killer of Frank Minna in the endlessly inventive Motherless Brooklyn (1999). Lionel’s boss was a complicated man — a friend, a mentor, a father figure and a kind-hearted Fagin wannabe who recruited Lionel and his orphan friends when they were teenagers living at Saint Vincent’s Home for Boys, and took them all under his wing, employing them at his car service, using them to move stolen goods and other odd jobs, eventually training them to become investigators. But when Minna’s bleeding body is found in a dumptster, it’s time to repay some debts.

Lionel’s quite a character, alternately annoying and endearing, pitiful and inspiring, as he battles Tourette’s as well as the usual P.I. stuff, in this literary tour-de-force that in lesser hands would have been a pretentious, ungainly, tasteless show-offy mess, but goodgoshamighty that Lethem can write….

In fact, Motherless Brooklyn won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the CWA/Macallan God Dagger For Fiction.

Not too shabby.

Not too shabby at all.

For what it’s worth, it’s one of my all-time favourite P.I. novels.

So I’m quite jazzed about the upcoming film adaptation, adapted, directed and starring Edward Norton, as well as a slew of other solid actors. Let’s just hope Ed doesn’t screw it up.

UNDER OATH

  • “A brilliantly imagined riff on the classic detective tale (by) one of contemporary fiction’s most inspired risk-takers. Don’t miss this one.
    — Kirkus Reviews
  • “…one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. Interesting use of language, characterizations, and also some really sly humor.”
    — Ann from Overbooked
  • “I almost didn’t take this out of the library, because the premise sounded way too gimmicky–a detective with Tourette’s, to add to the dinosaurs, Alzheimer’s victims, schizophrenics, and so on, that have been cropping up lately. But it turned out to be a really remarkable book–original in its language, but still firmly rooted in the private eye tradition, with a classic plot that Raymond Chandler would not have sniffed at….(Lionel) is at once hindered and helped by his condition; his compulsive verbal outbursts make it impossible for him to pass unnoticed; on the other hand, people think he’s crazy, so no one realizes how smart he is. Everything about his condition, even his compulsive joke-telling, gets used sooner or later in a book which turns out to be a model of efficient narration and wildly black humour. The spectacle of a Tourette’s sufferer sitting in a Zendo is worth the price of admission alone.”
    — Yvonne Klein onMysInDepth (April 2000)

NOVEL

FILMS

  • MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
    (2019)
    Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
    Screenplay by Edward Norton
    Directed by Edward Norton
    Starring Edward Norton as LIONEL ESSROG
    and Bruce Willis as Frank Minna
    Also starring Dallas Roberts, Leslie Mann, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Michael Kenneth Williams

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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