Traces of Film - Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn as a Detective Story

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2005

33 Seiten



I. Introduction: Jonathan Lethem’s Detective Story Motherless Brooklyn as a Pretext for a Hollywood Movie

II. The Novel: Motherless Brooklyn as a
1. Classical Detective Story
i. Features: The detective, the murder, a riddle and discovery
ii. Form
2. Comedy
3. Character Sketch
i. On the Protagonist
ii. Point of View
4. Film Script

III. The Hollywood (Detective) Movie
1. Montage
2. Narration and Content
3. Character and Point of View

IV. The Challenge of Adaptation
1. Film and Novel as Texts: Medial Differences
2. Adaptation versus Transfer
3. Codes and Character
V. The Film: Motherless Brooklyn as a
1. ...Character Sketch
2. Funny Detective Film
3. Film Script
i. The Essence of the Scene
ii. A Script Scene

VI. Conclusion: Filmreif

VII. Sources

I hereby confirm that this paper was written by myself and that all direct and indirect quotations from other sources have been documented appropriately.

I. Introduction: Jonathan Lethem’s Detective Story Motherless Brooklyn as a Pretext for a Hollywood Movie

Sometimes when we read a book and our imagination is roused by the words we read, we cannot wait for this story being told by a film. We want to see if our imagination fits the ‘real’ pictures on-screen. Having read a novel, there is a quite well-fitting German term that people use when they have liked the story and its characters. The novel has probably had a strong impact on their perception of the plot, and the language seems to have generated long-lasting images in their minds. One would – informally – say: ‘This is such a good story. This book is really (now comes the term) filmreif. ’ When I read Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, that was exactly what occurred to me. In this paper, I want to examine theoretically what was a sudden idea, an intuitive feeling in the beginning, and connect film science with literary analysis. The novel can be classified as a detective story as it seems to follow the pattern of a classical detective story, and it shows lots of features that could be read as a prose source for a movie. The narrative, i.e. the story, its subjects or motifs and the way it is told remind one of the typical sujets of the classical Hollywood cinema.

It is not uncommon that good (in the sense of critically acclaimed) and successful (in the sense of best-selling) books are ‚translated’ into films – in all kinds of genres and in all kinds of countries. When a film adapts a novel, it has to stand numerous comparisons to its literary predecessor. But whatever the ‘better’ medium for telling a good story is – the history of film-adaptation speaks for the phenomenon of adaptation itself: Many novels turned out to become good and successful films as well. Especially the detective story seems to be made of a pattern that works perfectly for films as well. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins are only two examples for successful film adaptations of classical detective stories.[1] What special pattern is this?

The Hollywood Cinema is well-known for its commercial success and its conventional principles of telling its stories. Despite critical accusations of having only little artistic worth, the Hollywood Movie must be recognized as a constant value not only for cineasts but also in film science.[2] Like the detective novel, the Hollywood Film owes its success to principles going back to one of the eldest of all narrative theories, namely Aristotle’s. Due to its medial character, the Film uses particular typical devices to convey its story, which must be respected when adapting a book. After having given an overview, I will finally suggest how to apply these filmic instruments to Lethem’s novel.

Motherless Brooklyn may be a filmreif book: Therefore I will first of all analyse the novel and then check it for its ‘Traces of Film’.

II. The Novel: Motherless Brooklyn as a…

1. … Classical Detective Story

The Classical Detective Story is said to be founded by E.A. Poe: “Poe’s first Dupin

story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ constitutes the celebrated prototype of detective fiction” (Porter 1933:24). Until today, many books and essays have been written discussing the typical characteristics of detective fiction.[3] As the genre is about 165 years old (Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1840), it may be clear that some principles and characteristics have changed, but still all detective stories have certain aspects in common. The typical detective story follows conventions that are still to be found in today’s fiction, as in Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.

i. Features: The detective, the murder, a riddle and discovery

The basic premise of a detective story contrasts decisively with ‘non-detective’ novels: Whereas most stories deal with the question ‘what will happen next’, the detective story always asks for ‘what has happened’ (cf. Stewart 1980:68): “The vulgar definition, ‘a Whodunit,’ is correct” (Auden. In: Winks 1980:15). In Motherless Brooklyn, it is not difficult to find the elements that typically compose a detective story: “the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives” (Auden. In: Winks 1980:17). Lethem’s protagonist Lionel wants to find out who killed his boss Frank Minna, who ran a detective agency. The milieu in which the story takes place is the detective milieu of the fictional reality. The first-person narrator Lionel is aware of the genre of the narrative that he tells. As he learns about a guy named Ullman’s being killed, he self-referentially states: “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?” (MB, 119). Lionel sometimes compares his job with famous fictional detectives, who more or less serve as idols:

So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange swirling darknesses, such manifold surrealist voids (‘something red wriggled like a germ under a microscope’ – Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep), and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition.

(MB, 205)

This intertextuality classifies the novel as a detective story. But which other detective fiction features can be revealed in Motherless Brooklyn ? In the detective fiction discourse, opinions on what makes a story a detective story diverge extremely. When checking a novel for detective fiction features, it is important to take the age of its genesis into account. Especially in matters of content, typical features have changed over the years: “The histories of detective fiction show how the variety of detective types seems infinite” (Stewart 1980:301). Exposed to the changes of time, the genre has been modernized: “Splendid variations and updatings this century has contributed” (Stewart 1980:71), which means: A modern detective story does not share too much with what a Sherlock-Holmes-fan would expect when reading it. But still, Sherlock Holmes and Motherless Brooklyn even have some things in common.[4] All Sherlock Holmes-stories are narrated from an outside perspective: Holmes’ assistant Watson narrates the story from the first-person-point-of-view. The first-person-narrator in Motherless Brooklyn, Lionel, is also only a hand for his ‘Holmes’ Frank Minna: “’We work for Frank Minna,’ I said, and heard my own unconcealed nostalgia, my pining. ‘We assist a detective. We’re, uh, operatives’” (MB, 189). But the main character of a detective story does not necessarily have to be a professional detective, as Stewart reduces the characteristics of detective fiction to a common denominator as follows: A detective story must mainly deal with detection and must have a professional or amateur detective as its protagonist (cf. Stewart 1980:14, 70, 300ff). From the moment when Frank Minna gets killed, Lionel works alone and at his own risk. In a way, he likes his new role that needs him to become tougher: “I felt a thrill at being taken so seriously. […] For once I was playing lead detective instead of comic – or Tourettic – relief” (MB, 143). Lionel is now a private eye (a private detective) in a typically American hard-boiled detective novel (cf. Grella 1970b. In: Winks 1980:106). “I’d woken into the realization that I was Minna’s successor and avenger, that the city shone with clues. It seemed possible I was a detective on case” (MB, 132). Tracking clue after clue, Lionel tries to solve the central riddle, which is transformed into a joke by Minna himself:

“Frank, who did this?”

“You know that Jewish joke you told me? The one about the Jewish lady goes to Tibet, wants to see the High Lama?”


“That’s a good one. What’s the name of that lama? You know, at the end, the punch line.”

“You mean Irving?”

“Yeah, right. Irving.” I could barely hear him now. “That’s who.” His eyes closed.

(MB, 29)

Minna knows his killer…

But why had Minna buried the information in a joke to begin with? I thought of a couple of reasons. One: He didn’t want us to know about Gerard unless he died. If he survived the attack he wanted his secret to survive as well. Two: He didn’t know who among his Men to trust, even down to Gilbert Coney. He could be certain I’d puzzle over the Irving clue while Gilbert would write it off as our mutual inanity. (MB, 201)

A joke as the key for finding the murderer. This does not only characterize Lionel, Minna, and their relationship, but also brings about a certain originality and unusualness. Lionel’s verbal ticcing over the Irving -joke helps him solving the “conundrum”, when he realizes that Minna meant his own brother Gerard by the name Irving (cf. MB, 200ff). The combination of joke and riddle bridges the classical whodunit and the comedy within the “hard-boiled” novel Motherless Brooklyn (cf. the next chapter). But the central joke is not the only riddle in the story. In the course of his investigations, Lionel encounters lots of questions to be answered – more questions than he can obviously bear: “Here [in Kimmery’s appartement] I’d find surcease for my pain and the answer to the puzzle of Tony and The Clients and why Minna and Ullman had to die and where Julia was and who Bailey was” (MB, 215). As it is characteristic for a detective novel (cf. Sayers. In: Winks, 1980:31), the detective Lionel is led into wrong directions – for example by The Clients, who make him suspect the wrong person for being Frank’s murderer, namely Tony, who seems to have had a motif:

“Somebody killed Frank.”

“Are you accusing Tony?” […]

“What if my search brings me to Tony?” I’d let The Clients lead me to this pass in the conversation, and now there wasn’t any reason to pretend.

“The dead live in our hearts, Lionel. […] But now Tony has replaced Frank in the world of the living.” […]

I understood now. […] Tony Vermonte and The Clients ran deeper than Frank Minna and The Clients ever had.

I considered the word replaced. I decided it was time to go.

(MB, 175f)

But nevertheless, Lionel finally succeeds not only in finding out who is responsible for Frank Minna’s death, but also in illuminating the correlations between all characters being involved in the case. The discovery of the truth at the end of the story rounds off the detective narrative – the formula is complete.[5]

ii. Form

Murder, riddle, investigation, discovery. The detective story Motherless Brooklyn follows a particular form. It is structured into three parts: “The detective story commonly begins with the murder; the middle is occupied with the detection of the crime and the various peripeties or reversals of fortune arising out of this; the end is the discovery […]” (Sayers. In: Winks 1980:27). Motherless Brooklyn is a novel with a closed form, and Lionel explicitly says this: “Then somewhere, sometime, a circuit closed” (MB, 304). Closed formulas are nothing new in the discourse of literary fiction: In her essay “Aristotle on Detective Fiction”, Dorothy Sayers applies the ancient philosopher’s drama theory Poetics to the detective genre. By quoting Aristotle she finds out that the classical detective story follows his definition of the ancient tragedy:

“The imitation of an action” […] “that is serious” – it will be admitted that murder is an action of a tolerably serious nature – “and also complete in itself” – that is highly important, since a detective story that leaves any loose ends is no proper detective story at all – “with incidents arousing pity and fear wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” (Sayers. In: Winks 1980:26)

Like the ancient tragedy, the detective novel is an imitation of reality. It tells a story in which several events are logically and causally connected. Anything that is probable can be used by the writer to forward the story (cf. Balme 2001:44ff). “’The story,’ says Aristotle, ‘should never be made up of improbable incidents; there should be nothing of the sort in it’” (Sayers. In: Winks 1980:29). “Similarly, as regards the characters, the impossible-probable is better than the improbable-possible” (Sayers. In: Winks 1980:29). The characters “must be like the reality” (cf. Sayers. In: Winks 1980:33). Both Lethem’s story and his characters are authentic – he portrays the New York detective plot in a realistic and ‘believable’ way. The protagonist’s character traits are coherent (cf. chapter II.3), which makes it possible for the reader to identify with him and feel pity and fear (or, to use a more modern and for the detective genre appropriate term, suspense) until, finally, the riddle is solved and the murderer is punished (carthasis): “’It’s rotten for Tony the killer found him before he found Fujisaki,’ I said. ‘But it won’t save Gerard. I made sure of that.’” (MB, 299). But before reaching discovery and resolution, the author sends the protagonist through various turning points and suffering to create suspense. Aristotle calls these crucial points in the plot “peripeties” (cf. Sayers. In: Winks 1980:29). A peripety may occur for example, when the detective encounters a new clue or when he finds out something important. In Motherless Brooklyn, this is the case, for instance, when Lionel recognizes that the Roshi of the Yorkville Zendo is Gerard Minna (cf. MB, 196-203). This throws a wholly new light on his investigations. The passage is even more than that: It is actually the key scene in which the main riddle, the joke, is solved. “Roshi looked like Minna. Your brother misses you, Irving. Irving equals Lama, Roshi equals Gerard. Roshi was Gerard Minna. Gerard Minna was the voice on the wire” (MB, 200). To most readers, this is probably a surprising moment as s/he does not expect this resolution. Formulas are not only based on the writers’ conventions, but also on the readers’ expectations. Cawelti (in: Winks 1980:124) states the importance of conventions for fiction: “Standard conventions establish a common ground between writers and audiences. Without at least some form of standardization, artistic communication would not be possible.” On the one hand the reader wants to experience a story that fulfils his need for order and expectance, but on the other hand he also longs for danger, suspense, emotions – namely Aristotle’s pity and fear (cf. Cawelti. In: Winks 1980:125f). The conventional formula of Motherless Brooklyn makes the reader feel ‘at home’ in the detective genre, but Lethem also comes up with lots of variations: That the main detective suffers from Tourette’s syndrome is probably the most essential one (besides the fact that the story runs deeper than just conveying a criminal case). Once being aware of reading a detective novel, the reader expects Lionel to solve the case. Although he is ‘just’ a “free human freakshow”, the reader identifies with him and therefore wishes that he may find the murderer. The reader gets what he wants. By solving the case, the detective Lionel restores an order that has been disturbed. “The action of a formula story will tend to move from an expression of tension of this sort to a harmonization of these conflicts” (Cawelti. In: Winks 1980:142). There is no doubt that Lionel reaches his goal, but nevertheless, the whole affair does not end up in perfect harmony or a better world. “Unlike most American heroes, however, the [hard-boiled] detective has no other place to go“ (Grella 1970b. In: Winks 1980:112). Not without an ironic undertone Lionel realizes in the end: “L&L was a detective agency, a clean one for the first time. So clean we didn’t have any clients” (MB, 306). Lethem brings all strands of action to an end – every circle is closed in the very last chapter “Good Sandwiches” (MB, 304-311).

[…]the form of the detective story – that is, progress from the discovery of the corpse to the arrest of the criminal – insures that it shall have that self-determining beginning and that definite conclusion upon which also Aristotle insisted. In other words, the detective story is the one clearly defined modern genre of prose fiction impeccably classical in form.” (Krutch. In: Winks 1980:45)

2. … a Comedy

As already pointed out above, jokes play an important role in Motherless Brooklyn. Not only the characters within the story laugh (or sometimes do not laugh) about jokes, but also the reader is confronted with uncountable funny situations that often have their origin in the protagonist’s syndrome, which is frequently combined with the intelligent self-irony of his first-person voice. Of course one must admit that the actual discourse is a serious one – a murderer is to be found. There is even tragic in what the reader may experience as funny: Lionel’s sickness – his Tourette’s syndrome – makes him different from other people, makes his communication difficult and scandalizing, makes a ‘normal’ life impossible for him. There can – but not always has to be – a difference between the emotions felt by the characters inside the narrative and the emotions the story triggers on the reader. This is reasoned by the contrast between the reader’s distance towards and the reader’s identification with the protagonist:

The process of identification in a mimetic fiction involves both my recognition of the differences between myself and the characters and my often reluctant but rather total involvement in their actions. I have at once a detached view and a disturbingly full sympathy and understanding.

(Cawelti. In: Winks 1980: 126)

Lionel suffers from almost all possible existing Tourettic tics. He touches things and people, he is offends people, he deforms words and mixes senseful passages with verbal hokum. Lionel’s tics entertain everyone who likes black humor, as he breaks taboos and exceeds borders – not only with his coprolalia:

“Can we go back to – fuckmeblackcop – back to talking nice now?”

“What do you say?”

“Nothing. Let go of my collar.” I’d kept the outburst down to a mumble – and I knew to be grateful my Tourette’s brain hadn’t dialled up nigger. (MB, 114)

Also Lionel’s Tourettic mimicking behaviour not seldom entails slapstick-like elements.

“No message,” I said. I tapped the nearest doorman’s suit breast. He darted back, scowling. But they were penguins now I had to touch them all. I reached for the next, the tallest, tried to high-five his shoulder and just grazed it. The circle loosened around me again as I spun. They might have thought I was staining them with invisible swatches of blacklight paint for future identification or planting electronic bugs or just plain old spreading cooties, from the way they jumped.

(MB, 159)

Plus he himself turns out to be a character with a huge sense of ironic humor – independent from his tics:

“Enough with the double-talk,” he said. “Where’s he going? Why are you pretending your man Minna’s still with us, Alibi? What’s the game?”

“Wow,” I said. “This was unexpected. You’re like good cop and bad cop rolled into one.”

(MB, 114)

Lionel’s sense of humor makes him likeable for the reader, which supports identification. The reader takes part in the action through Lionel’s eyes, as he narrates from the first-person-perspective. We know what Lionel knows. We become his companion, we share his tics, and we begin to understand them. They reappear in different situations, and we can classify them – unlike certain characters in the narrative that meet Lionel for the first time. We are ‘insiders’, whereas the doorman of the Yorkville Zendo, for instance, is not:

“Good. Now tell me what you know about the Yorkville Zendo.” I indicated the bronze plaque next door with a jerk of my thumb. “Dirkweed! Dirkman!”

“What?” He goggled his eyes at me.

“You see them come and go?”

“I guess.”

“Walter Guessworth!” I cleared my throat deliberately. “Work with me here, Walter. You must see stuff. I want your impressions.”

I could see him sorting through layers of exhaustion, boredom, and stupidity. “Are you a cop?”

“Why’d you think that?”

“You, uh, talk funny.” (MB, 133)


[1] Films by Reginald Barker (1934), Robert Bierman (1996) (Moonstone); Howard Hawks (1946) (The Big Sleep)

[2] The critical discourse indicated here cannot be followed explicitly within the scope of this paper.

[3] A famous attempt of formulating basic rules for the genre is Ronald A. Knox’s “A Detective Story Decalouge”, in which he sums up the essential criteria of detective fiction within ten points.

[4] Concerning Sherlock Holmes, there is even intertextual reference to be found in the novel. It characterizes the relationship between Lionel and his Minna Man ‘brother’ Tony: “’You knew I had Frank’s beeper,’ I said sheepishly, putting it together. ‘No, the old guys have X-ray vision, like Superman. They don’t know shit if I don’t tell them, Lionel. You need to find a new line of work, McGruff. Shitlock Holmes.’” (MB, 179)

[5] „In general, a literary formula is a structure of narrative or dramatic conventions employed in a great number of individual works” (Cawelti. In: Winks 1980:121).

Ende der Leseprobe aus 33 Seiten


Traces of Film - Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn as a Detective Story
Universität zu Köln  (Englisches Seminar)
Word, Image, Sound: New York
ISBN (eBook)
616 KB
Eine Analyse des postmodernen Detektiv-Bestsellers von Jonathan Lethem im Hinblick auf dessen filmischen Charakter mit dem Ziel der Adaption des Stoffes als Drehbuch bzw. Film.
Traces, Film, Jonathan, Lethem, Motherless, Brooklyn, Detective, Story, Word, Image, Sound, York
Arbeit zitieren
Christoph Bietz (Autor), 2005, Traces of Film - Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn as a Detective Story, München, GRIN Verlag,


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