Private detective Lionel Essrog isn’t really a private detective – he and three men who grew up with him in the same orphanage run errands for Frank Minna, a small-timer who continually crosses the line between legal and illegal. Nor is Lionel exactly unobtrusive – suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, he lets loose with tortured variations of common words, is compelled to touch things, or perform little rituals that always attract attention. When Frank is killed, Lionel takes it on himself to solve the murder, even though he has no experience with actual investigations. Opposed by everyone from Frank’s wife to the elderly mobsters who gave Frank work, Lionel presses on out of a sense of loyalty until he resolves the crime.
Lethem plays with genre conventions until what starts as a streetwise noir detective story becomes a blend of character study, black humor, offbeat romance, and suspense novel, flavored with his trademark linguistic playfulness. Lionel’s Tourette’s riffs are effortlessly written, but infused with meaning that the people around him don’t hear.