This was Lethem's debut book and one has to admire his ambition at the very least. It's set in a future American city. The scientific gene advances have enabled animals to become almost human, with voices and human intelligences. But they are, if you like, the equivalent of the new black race, suspected and looked down upon. There is a new prison system too, you don't now go to jail to be a further drain upon society, you are cryogenically frozen for the term of your sentence. You are stripped of the karmic points on your life-card. On release you receive a fair number to allow you to start building up the karma again. Sounds almost humane doesn't it?
Conrad Metcalfe is a private inquisitor (the police are all inquisitors now) - one of the very few remaining private eyes. The dialogue is fast though only infrequently lives up to the Raymond Chandler model. When a man called Orton Angwine asks for help - a man with zero karma, Conrad knows there is little he can do. "When the Inquisitor's Office set your card at zero, it meant you couldn't get caught slamming the door to a public rest room without sinking into a negative karmic level." And Orton Angwine has been accused of murder.
I found it fun at one level, with the inventive use of notions such as children treated at birth to gain an adult's learning abilities in their first three years(Babyheads). But this is one of the ideas that are only peripherally delivered. Solving the case of Orton Angwine takes precedence. The trouble is it takes forever. Conrad drives here, he drives there, he has inconclusive conversations with half a dozen people and it just goes nowhere. I liked the ideas but the energy ran out of the action around halfway through, even given Dulcie the sheep. I much prefer Lethem's later work, especially the wonderful Motherless Brooklyn.