Kitty Corner: ‘The New York Trilogy’ is a softboiled mystery

Kitty Guo | Daily Trojan

Long before I became the “aloof and inauthentic” asshole that I am today, I was into detective novels. I devoured every one of Agatha Christie’s “cozies,” featuring the mustachioed dandy Hercule Poirot and the sweetly benign Miss Marple, whose mild appearances, all prim and proper, belied their razor-sharp intellect. Then I transitioned into stories that were a little rougher around the edges: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the undisputed kings of noir. Their cynical, antihero detectives Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, who rolled with the punches and relaxed with a glass of whiskey, inhabited a world full of peril and intrigue, where danger lurked around every grimy street corner.

Pulp fiction is not, perhaps, the most intellectual genre of literature, but I loved it nonetheless. I loved trying to crack the case as I read, loved unraveling the puzzle of “whodunnit,” even loved falling into the author’s trap and casting the blame in the direction that they were pointing me in. I was so cocksure, so certain that I’d caught the real perp this time. I was always wrong.

I’d like to say that I’ve grown out of it, and that nowadays everything I read is exclusively experimental, incomprehensible and James Joyce-esque, but in truth, my heart will always lie with private eyes. Imagine my glee, then, when I discovered that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy is one of my favorite novels of all time. Combining my two beloved literary genres — postmodernism and detective fiction — I firmly believe that this book and I are soulmates. It’s sly and ironic, subversive and meta as hell; in short, it’s everything I strive to be both in my writing and just as a person, really.   

Photo courtesy of Penguin Classics

The New York Trilogy is divided into three parts: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. In part one, an author of detective novels, Daniel Quinn, receives a frantic midnight call from someone who believes he will soon be murdered. He is looking for “Paul Auster, the private investigator.” This is exactly the shot of adrenaline that Quinn needs to enliven his humdrum life; he successfully passes himself off as “Auster,” but once he becomes embroiled in the case, which drags on and on with no end in sight, his mind begins to unravel.

In part two, the story shifts to an entirely different narrative, where the characters are christened as colors: a P.I., Blue, is hired by a client, White, to trail Black, who lives on Orange Street. Blue fully immerses himself into the life of Black, and — surprise, surprise — also starts to lose his grip on reality. Surreal and symbolic, the constant surveillance that Blue subjects himself to lends the story a tense, disquieting effect.

Finally, in part three, the narrator, an unnamed protagonist, is shocked to learn that his childhood friend, Fanshawe, a successful novelist, has vanished out of the blue. The narrator completes and publishes Fanshawe’s unfinished work, which is hailed as a masterpiece; he consoles Fanshawe’s family, eventually marrying a carbon copy of his wife and adopting his son; and, gradually, assumes his old friend’s identity. But are his actions entirely of his own volition … or has Fanshawe set him up?

The New York Trilogy isn’t just another straightforward mystery novel, with a clear, tidy resolution; answers are not provided, gaping wide plot holes are never stitched up and you will most definitely put the book down incredulously mouthing, as I did, “What?! What?!” Auster plays with themes of identity and reality, sanity and free will, the woeful inadequacy but also fundamental necessity of language as a form of communication. The mixed reviews are a testament to its polarizing nature; readers either love it or hate it, but rarely are they indifferent to it once they reach the last page. It’s evident that I’m squarely in the “love it” camp, but no matter where you end up falling on the spectrum, The New York Trilogy is, without a doubt, a must-read.

Kitty Guo is a sophomore majoring in journalism and computational linguistics.  She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.