Book Review: THE FERAL DETECTIVE, an unusual mystery with problematic protagonist

Lethem, Jonathan - The Feral Detective (2)The Feral Detective
Jonathan Lethem

Phoebe Siegler, who had quit her job in a fit of rage over the results of the 2016 election, traveled to Upland, California on the trail of Arabella Swados, her friend Rosyln’s eighteen-year-old daughter who went missing from her Oregon college the previous fall. To help her find Arabella, she enlists Charles Heist, the feral detective, whose unusual looks are matched only by his unconventional techniques. On the trail of Arabella, they travel to the desert, to off-grid gendered communities having strange rituals but few rules, though Heist’s unique background may help them navigate the dangerous, wild world.

Phoebe is a female character who could only have been written by a man. Her sexual attraction to Heist is inexplicable and sometimes simply gross, especially given the context of searching for a missing teenager. Yet, she thinks, “I wanted to confirm my ability to anchor this man’s drifting attention. Before he found Arabella, I thought, he ought to find me.”

At one point, she describes a Western she and her father watched but that her mother hated. The female lead spent much of her screen time sequestered in a room above the saloon, and her big moment came when she dropped a flower pot on the antagonist’s head. Her mother decried the character’s lack of agency, and to some extent, Phoebe seemed to agree with that assessment, but she keeps finding herself in the position of that heroine. In one key scene, she is literally locked up above the action, and to make matters worse, she accidentally pepper sprays herself. Even when she envisions herself as a rescuer, she needs rescuing, the damsel in distress.

The Feral Detective is packed with symbolism: copious amounts of rain in the desert, the encroachment of the wild into civilization and visa versa, the relationship between Rabbits and Bears, the impact of the 2016 election, how that which provides freedom can itself be a cage. But truly, I just don’t care enough to try to unpack all the meaning.

Yet, there are some beautiful phrasings. Phoebe observed: “We were in whatever we were in together, and since we barely knew each other, we were alone too.” And she knew of herself: “I felt I could say anything to Lorrie, but not in a good way.” If Phoebe had been written differently, less sexist, I might have liked the book. Alas. . .