Complicated cases, grisly gunplay, slippery suspects, determined detectives and bitter betrayals – these are common expectations when we read crime fiction. From Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Sherlock Holmes to the gritty hardboiled school of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, these stories always begin with a shocking crime. The tough, wisecracking private detective quickly arrives on the scene, promising to do what the incompetent official authorities will not: crack the case. Righting wrongs and catching villains, the sleuth discovers clues and questions suspects. The criminal is always the person that the reader least suspects and the solution to the mystery leaves us with a brimming sense of satisfaction.
But what happens when the detective can’t solve the case? When even the most promising clues only lead to others? When paranoia invades the mind and turns the ill-equipped investigator into a psychotic? These aren’t the kind of questions that typically arise from the genre. They are, however, the kind of dilemmas Paul Auster explores in his iconic The New York Trilogy – three brain-teasing novellas that remain as haunting and mesmerising as any Stieg Larsson pageturner.
The New York Trilogy is, in many ways, comparable to Auster’s own unusual journey as a writer. Starting out as a struggling poet over 40 years ago (he once believed everything he touched ‘turned to failure’), Auster has become one of the most prolific and critically-acclaimed American authors in the contemporary era, sitting comfortably alongside fellow literary champions Don DeLillo and Salman Rushdie.
American literary critic Sven Birkerts describes Auster as ‘the ghost at the banquet of contemporary American letters’. His fiction is always strange and unpredictable, deftly incorporating American and European literary traditions and sensibilities. Auster has built his career on exploring the paradoxical relationship between the basic fundamentals of storytelling and deliberate self-consciousness, taking great delight in both conforming to and defying readerly expectations.
First published in 1987, The New York Trilogy helped usher in a new era of crime fiction. Featuring a metropolis plagued by dimly-lit alleyways and a sense of violent emptiness, the novel playfully manipulates the classical tropes of crime and detection. Auster’s mysteries dabble in existentialism and the ambivalence between good and evil, right and wrong. In these stories, the trusty magnifying glass and .38 revolver are useless. Instead, the detective becomes hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of clues, where the more he investigates, the more likely he will lose his mind.
Auster explains the essence of a good crime and detective mystery in the first novella, City of Glass. For those not already in the loop, he writes: ‘there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant … even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked.’ Auster conveys this philosophy through his protagonist, Daniel Quinn, a poet who settles for writing mystery novels (under the pseudonym ‘William Wilson’) for a living.
There’s a strong sense of comfort for old-school crime-fiction junkies in the opening description of Quinn. Like the traditional gumshoe, Quinn is haunted by a tragic past – writing mystery novels becomes his salvation, a way to live vicariously through his private- eye narrator, Max Work. While Auster doesn’t show Quinn visiting crime scenes or rectifying social injustice, we quickly learn that whatever he knows about crime has come directly from ‘books, films, and newspapers’. Max Work is a detective we are all familiar with: he solves elaborate crimes, suffers beatings and makes narrow escapes. To Quinn, Work functions as ‘his interior brother, his comrade in solitude’.
But it only takes a wrong-number call to Quinn in the dead of the night for him to realise this isn’t going to be any ordinary crime caper. The desperate voice on the other end of the line asks Quinn if he can speak to Paul Auster. Of the Auster Detective Agency. After receiving the same call three nights in a row, Quinn impulsively claims he’s Auster. In the blink of an eye, not only does Auster (the author) turn Quinn into a bona fide detective, he also masterfully infuses himself as a ‘presence’ within the fictional narrative. Incidentally, this technique was inspired by several bizarre real-life phone calls Auster received, asking if he was from the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
By this point the reader is already as curious (and possibly confused) as Quinn, albeit for different reasons. Auster’s metafictional quandary engages the reader with the text; comparable to a detective and his case, we must piece together obscure clues in the narrative in order to have any chance of understanding what is really going on.
Quinn thinks the move from experienced mystery writer to capital-D Detective will be seamless. After all, he knows the role inside out: ‘The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them.’ However, Quinn makes this declaration before meeting his client: the enigmatic Peter Stillman. We quickly realise that the young man responsible for calling Quinn in the middle of the night is insane – Stillman thinks his father (Peter Stillman Sr.) is plotting his murder.
Quinn’s pursuit and surveillance of Stillman Sr. leads to maddening riddles, doppelgängers and lengthy intertextual digressions about the likes of Milton, Beckett and Don Quixote. Quinn documents his progress (or lack thereof) in a little red notebook, hoping that it will offer a form of salvation – a means to distinguish the ‘real’ from the ‘unreal’.
The New York Trilogy’s minimalistic second story, Ghosts, begins more conventionally. Unlike Quinn, the protagonist here, Blue (all the characters are named after colours) is no amateur in sleuthing or the art of disguise. He’s been taught everything he knows about the PI business by Brown, and has been hired by White to follow and keep an eye on a man named Black. Along the way we also learn about the infamous Gray Case, meet the potential Mrs Blue, and a couple of crazy guys who go by the names Green and Gold.
What Auster is doing here is more than just a case of trying to mess with our minds. Auster mischievously ‘colour-codes’ his characters to explore the fragility of identity (the same technique a young Quentin Tarantino later used to devastating effect in his hyper- stylised crime thriller Reservoir Dogs). In Ghosts, these characters are successfully stripped back to generic archetypes, essentially working as problematic and disorientating signifiers.
On a very basic level, we understand who these characters are in the beginning. By the time Auster reveals that Black and White are technically the same person, however, our reading experience has become gloriously fragmented. Since most of the proceedings are focalised through Blue’s disintegrating psyche, Auster astutely provokes us to consider the intrinsic relationship between the writer, detective and reader.
The focus is squarely placed on the ‘writer-as-detective’ concept in the novel’s final story, The Locked Room. The title itself acts as a playful reference to the popular ‘locked-room mystery’ subgenre of detective fiction, which is typically characterised by a murder being committed in a sealed space. The Locked Room chronicles the anonymous narrator’s disturbing quest to reunite with his long-lost childhood friend, Fanshawe. For a disillusioned journalist who considers his writing ‘just a little short of hack work’, the abrupt disappearance of Fanshawe (and discovery of his brilliant unpublished works) allows the narrator the opportunity to fulfil his literary dreams. In The Locked Room, the blurry distinction between the work of the detective and that of the writer disintegrates.
But why should we read a novel devoted to cutting up the traditional blueprint for crime fiction when there’s an Agatha Christie murder- mystery to enjoy? Aside from pushing the boundaries of authorship and adding an engaging philosophical dimension to the genre, the simple answer lies in the durable appeal of Auster’s detectives. We form an inextricable bond with the protagonists in The New York Trilogy – they are individuals with curious minds thrust into extraordinary situations. Unlike Sherlock Holmes’ superhuman powers of deduction and Philip Marlowe’s unwavering commitment to stopping the perp, the protagonists in The New York Trilogy are flawed human beings trying to make sense and find their place in the contemporary world.
Seventeen publishers reportedly turned down the original manuscript for City of Glass. In an ironic twist, Auster’s first novel was a conventional hardboiled story called Squeeze Play, published under the pseudonym ‘Paul Benjamin’. Following all the crime beats made famous by Chandler and Hammett, the novel blends two of Auster’s other great loves: baseball and film noir. These not only become reoccurring motifs but they have also influenced Auster’s career as a filmmaker. In his own adaptations for the screen (including The Music of Chance and The Inner Life of Martin Frost), as well as collaborations with talented filmmaker Wayne Wang (Smoke, Blue in the Face and The Center of the World), characters are forced into existential investigations, which inevitably invoke the dark forces of isolation and despair. In fact, a peculiar psychological and moral unease illuminates all of his novels, from the conspiratorial dread of Leviathan to the haunting self-reflexivity of Travels in the Scriptorium.
At the 2008 Adelaide Writers’ Week, Auster admitted that he is compelled to ‘write about things he doesn’t understand’, preferring to venture into territory that is ‘frightening and unknowable’. As a native New Yorker, it appears rather ironic that the setting for his three stories and lonely detectives is a city he knows well. However, like everything in The New York Trilogy, appearances are deceiving. While the mean streets are punctuated by the sounds of sirens and obscenities, Auster’s New York City is a world that appears familiar, yet at the same time is strangely foreign. Auster achieves this by revealing his detectives’ preoccupation with the cityscape, where they become convinced the urban sprawl is really an elaborate pattern integral to solving their respective mysteries – that, when solved, will expose a much more sinister reality.
New York City works as a device in the novel, a labyrinth made up of ‘figments and hallucinations’. Like the characters, we are suckered in by the intrigue and deceptive promise that everything can be connected. Simply put, the landscape isn’t the detectives’ (or our) best friend in these stories: near the end of City of Glass, Quinn becomes so alienated he thinks he may have ‘melted into the walls of the city’; in Ghosts, Blue brutally attempts to murder Black because he’s confronted with ‘no man’s land, the place you come to at the end of the world’.
In a post-9/11 age of fear and estrangement, all the stories in The New York Trilogy – while venturing into ambiguity and the absurd – having endings that, in an abstract sense, feel very real. And in the modern world, it is the prospect of an uncomplicated, heroic resolution to any sort of crime or mystery that feels most artificial. After all, the mystique of the unsolved most excites our wild and occasionally paranoid imaginations. As Borges once shrewdly noted, ‘the solution of a mystery is always less impressive than the mystery itself’. Sometimes the complicated case is better left uncracked.