Murder On The River Hudson

Thomas Leclaire

Dear Edward Norton

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem contrasts many themes and genres in order to create a unique novel. Lethem modifies classic tropes of the Detective Fiction genre in order to create a strong sense of connection with the main character, Lionel Essrog.

Lethem implements mystery characters throughout the novel. The first mention is present in the first chapter, “‘Eat shit, Bailey!’ Bailey was a name embedded in my Tourette’s brain, though I couldn’t say why. I’d never known a Bailey.” (10) Mystery characters are employed of distract the reader from the case. Bailey is a unique character because he is a figment of Lionel’s Tourette’s. There is no description of him and his origin is unknown but while reading the story he becomes as important as Lionel is because of the effect that he has on Lionel. Lethem introduces a second mystery character that does not directly effect the story, Ullman. Ullman gets killed before the reader is ever introduced to him. Lethem breaks the fourth wall to joke with the reader about this common trope in detective fiction.

“Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway. And characters mentioned early on but never sighted, just lingering offstage, take on an awful portentous quality. Better to have them gone.” (113)

Detective fiction often portrays a murder at the beginning of the novel that requires the need for a detective. In this novel there are two murders and although Lethem clearly states that Ullman does not burden the reader, his death is a critical part in the death of Frank Minna. Readers must therefore read between the lines and see past Lethem’s joke. It provides heightened tension as hints are cleverly hidden alongside red herrings that confuse the reader even more. “To her it was self-evident that the giant and I were dual phenomena. I’d caused his presence at the Zendo, was likely responsible for his very existence.” (212) And later when Julia say, “Right, only nobody could see him except Big Bird. I think the giant’s your Snuffleupagus, Lionel.” (300) Both of these quotes point to the fact that the giant is only a figment of Lionel’s imagination. The issue with both is that Gilbert saw the giant as well in the initial car chase which means that he must exist. The fact is that both throw the reader of the scent of the real killer who is the giant.

Detective Fiction is a very structured genre where certain tropes must be maintained in order to fit the name. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem follows many of these tropes while slightly modifying others to insure a unique novel. One trope which Lethem uses to great affect is the portrayal of hints and clues very subtly throughout the text. This allows a very analytical reader to solve the case before the detective reveals the killer in the final scene of the novel. Lethem presents clues in many ways but the most creative way is through Lionel’s Tourettic outbursts and thoughts. These outbursts are generally random and seem to have no meaning. Cleverly, Lethem, mixes random outbursts with those which contain pertinent information to the case. “I vant to go to Tibet. … Come home, Irving. … Your family misses you. … I vant to go to Tibet! … I vant to speak to the Lama! … The High Lama will grant you an audience. … Irving, come home. … Your brother misses you Irving.” (195, 196, 197, 199, 200) These Tourettic thoughts happen over several pages while Lionel is sitting in a meditation session. These thoughts are all of a joke Frank Minna told years before his death that reveals the location of his brother, Gerard Minna. Lionel puts together the clues and identifies Gerard as Roshi Jerry who is sitting in front of him at the time. Lethem mixes in random outbursts that provide no context to the story along with the hidden clues, “Heart racing, I allowed soothing permutations to course through my brain: Garden state bricko and stuckface garbage face grippo and stuckfast garter snake ticc-o and circus.” (164) This outburst doesn’t provide any additional information to the case, Lionel feels uncomfortable talking to The Clients but that is already established in the story. These random unimportant tics are what confuse the reader during the story and make it challenging to decipher what is a clue and what is humorous outbursts meant to distract.

The novel adheres to the trope seen in many Detective Fiction novels where the ending leaves readers to decide if justice has been served through the actions of the detective. In Motherless Brooklyn there is a definite sense of conclusion for Lionel as he manages to most likely put the Polish giant in jail and have Gerard Minna killed. Lionel ends up unsure of the morality of his case but overcomes that and moves on. “We were Dapper and the Stooges, it was plain to the eye.” (306) Lionel is over the death of Minna and Tony even though he spent so much time trying to get vengeance for them. “The ghosts I felt sorriest for weren’t the dead ones. I’d imagined Frank and Tony were mine to protect, but I’d been wrong. I knew it now. Justice is achieved by Lionel for the death of Frank, but does it really change anything. Lionel goes back to working at L & L, now for Danny, and Frank is still dead. Is the story pointless because of this? No, but in many ways Lionel returns as the same person. What does change is what defines the story, gives it purpose and justifies Lionel’s vengeance. “Ullman? Never met the guy. Just like Bailey. They were just guys I never happened to meet. To both of them and to you I say: Put an egg in your shoe, and beat it. Make like a tree, and leave. Tell your story walking.” (311) Lionel overcomes the fear of his own condition, Tourette’s. This frees Lionel form his life long struggle that he has been trying to face since it first appeared. Lionel is able to face his Tourette’s accept it and tell his story walking.

A film adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem must include these significant tropes of the Detective genre in order to stay true to the story and illustrate the transformation that takes place within Lionel. This will render audiences awestruck by the journey Lionel completes.

Works Cited

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Vintage, 1999. Print.


One thought on “Murder On The River Hudson

  1. This is a very good essay. It’s certainly developed a lot since the first draft, which is exactly the point. I really like how you’re using your prior knowledge from your Detective Fiction class and applying it to this exercise. You’re working from a position of strength, and it’s precisely your depth of knowledge in this genre that makes this essay successful. You point to a lot of really crucial elements of this novel in your discussion. Your argument is convincing and logical. Your writing, for the most part, is effective and clean.

    Notes for future assignments: You include great citations, but you’re not integrating them properly. This causes a bit of choppiness in your essay. Come and see me if you’d like instructions on how to fix this for your last essay.

    Great work, overall.


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