Lionel Esrog, along with three friends, is plucked from a Brooklyn orphanage by Frank Minna, a self-made detective and small time Brooklyn nogoodnik. Early in the book, Minna walks into a trap leaving his four offspring to solve the mystery of what happened to their boss. Lionel lets you know in the opening lines that he has Tourette’s Syndrome. He obsesses on numbers and patterns, word tensions explode in his mind and burst from his lips: EAT ME, BAILY! As he works to solve the mystery, Lionel becomes a full human being, far deeper, funnier, and more intelligent than we, or anyone around him, gives him credit for. His fellow Brooklynites refer to him as FreakShow, and we do, too, until slowly we recognize how automatically we have categorized Lionel because of his ticks and squirms. The supporting cast, including the entire borough, are superbly rendered. Every voice retaining its original Italian, Jewish, or out-of-city origins with precise adjustments for the age of the speaker. The mystery is fun and funny enough, but Motherless Brooklyn is a must-read because its characters and sense of place lodge in your head like one of Lionel’s numerical obsessions, a friendly itcth that cannot be ignored.
The year is 1845. The city of New York has grown a little too quickly from 50,000 to half a million. The potato blight has recently struck Ireland and now starving Irish immigrants are arriving by the boatload creating friction with resident Protestants whose fear of a Papist takeover is breeding abhorrent levels of prejudice. New York is a city of pestilence, prostitution, fires, pigs, mud, crime, and hunger and in 1845 its first police force is created to establish some order. Timothy Wilde is the city’s first crime detective and he spends his days tracking across lower Manhattan searching for a serial killer of young children. All the evidence suggests that Protestants are ritually murdering Catholic children in hopes of frightening the Irish back across the Atlantic. The strength of this mystery is what we learn about mid-Nineteenth Century New York City. The imagery is fantastic. Unfortunately, Timothy Wilde is just an ordinary detective, not quite endearing enough to make me want to get involved in his second case.