Lionel Essrog (Motherless Brooklyn)

Created by Jonathan Lethem

“Tell your story walkin’, pal.”

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 was quite jazzed about the film adaptation, adapted by, directed by, produced by and starring Edward Norton, as well as a slew of other solid actors. When I first heard about this project, all I could think was, “I just hope Ed doesn’t screw it up.”

Especially when I heard that Norton moved the novel’s 1990s setting back to 1957, turning it into what I feared might just be another lame, by the number period piece full of cool cars and the obligatory  jazz score. As Peter Travers in Rolling Stone pointed out, “The spirit, if not the letter of the novel, is in the bones of this film version… Norton the filmmaker has put Norton the actor through the ringer so that we see everything that transpires through Lionel’s eyes, working out the mystery as he works it out. For some viewers, this makes the plot too convoluted by half. Screw that. Go with the challenge and Motherless Brooklyn offers a home to the striving mind and heart.”

The problem for me, then, was that I liked the “letter of the novel.” I found the film over-earnest, and disappointingly  preachy. Its heart may have been in the right place, but it came off off, as Dennis Broe in CrimeTime wrote, as “a play-by-the-numbers, utterly clichéd, pale imitation of Chinatown, complete with a Moses stand-in as Chinatown villain Noah Cross and a personal “passing” plot which never really registers. Ed Norton’s performance as the Tourette’s-afflicted detective is all actorly tick… The end result is a film that seems to be more a Hollywood projection of and imposition on a neighborhood and a city than an actual description of a place.”


  • “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)



  • MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN Buy the DVD Buy the Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    (2019, Warner Bros.)
    144 minutes
    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


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

Leave a Reply