The Feral Detective
(2018), a detective novel by American author Jonathan Lethem, tells the story of a New York journalist who quits her job to travel to Los Angeles to search for the missing daughter of a former coworker. It is Lethem's first detective novel since 1999's Motherless Brooklyn
, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In a review at Vox
, Constance Grady calls it a "post-election allegory about desert gangs," adding that the book is "a mess. But it's a fun mess."
In January of 2017, protagonist and narrator Phoebe Siegler is a New Yorker in her late twenties. Disillusioned by the election of Donald Trump, Phoebe abandons a promising career in journalism that includes stints at NPR
and The New York Times
. She resigns from The New York Times
in protest after the newspaper's post-election summit with Trump, a real-life event that attracted a measure of controversy and infamy. Meanwhile, without warning, Phoebe's friend Arabella Swados, the daughter of one of her former coworkers at The New York Times
, drops out of college, moves to Los Angeles, and then disappears. Newly unemployed and in search of direction, Phoebe takes it upon herself to track down Arabella.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Phoebe hears of a private eye named Charles Heist who goes by the nickname, The Feral Detective. He is so named because he was born into a tribe of people who in the 1960s removed themselves from mainstream society to live in the mountains and desert surrounding Los Angeles. There are, in fact, two of these tribes, the Bears and the Rabbits, who are adversarial with one another. Though born into the Bears, Heist defected to the less aggressive Rabbit tribe as a child. The Bears are mostly violent men, while the Rabbits primarily comprise peaceful women and children. As an adult, Heist removed himself from both tribes to live within society. His specialty as a detective is tracking down members of the tribes and convincing them to rejoin society. With reason to believe Arabella has joined one of these tribes, Phoebe enlists Heist's help to find her. Although Heist has a number of bizarre habits—for example, he keeps an opossum with a uterine tract infection in his desk drawer at all times—Phoebe finds him to be irresistibly attractive.
While roaming the mountains searching for Arabella, Phoebe and Heist find two dead bodies that appear to be victims of a ritual killing at the hands of the Bears. In an effort to throw the Bears into disarray, Heist challenges the tribe's leader, Solitary Love, to a ceremonial fight to the death. At a settlement in the Mojave Desert, Phoebe surreptitiously watches the two men fight. She sees Arabella in the throng of Bear spectators. Though she only visited the Bear and Rabbit settlements in an effort to learn more about them, Arabella was taken hostage by the Bears. As Heist delivers a killing blow to Solitary Love, distracting the crowd, Phoebe and Arabella escape. Meanwhile, in retribution for killing their leader, the Bears take Heist as their captive.
Once she is sure that Arabella is on her way home to safety, Phoebe formulates a plan to save Heist. She infiltrates the camp where Heist is being held by enlisting the aid of Laird, a Bear defector whom Heist previously helped escape the tribe. Heist is being held a prisoner in a seat dangling from a rusted-out Ferris wheel. While attempting to save him, Phoebe and her friend Melinda who accompanies her on the rescue mission become Ferris wheel prisoners themselves. Ultimately, all three escape and return to Los Angeles. While Phoebe has fallen in love with Heist, she is unsure whether she will return to New York or stay in Los Angeles to help him save people from the desert tribes.
In the end, the two tribes come to symbolize the two dominant political parties in the United States, which in the Trump Era have grown even more adversarial than at any other time in modern memory. While there are good people in both tribes, the leaderships of these tribes are ultimately corrupt and betray those who rely upon them.