The first of these, City of Glass, opens with Quinn, a part-time writer who gets a call for Paul Auster (that's the author's name!), a private eye, begging him to take a case. Eventually, Quinn takes the case despite the case of mistaken identity. His client, Peter Stillman, who gives a long speech that sounds something like the word salad of a schizophrenic, hires Quinn to track down his father, who has just been released from prison and who Stillman thinks is going to try to kill him. The crime for which he was convicted? Locking Peter in a room for nine years as a child in an attempt to discover in isolation man's natural language, the language of God, which will reverse the curse of the Tower of Babel and present the key to understanding all. Here is a passage from City of Glass, where Stillman's father is speaking to Quinn:
"My work is very simple. I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You have only to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts. The whole city is a junk heap. It suits my purpose admirably. I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things. Each day I g o out with my bag and collect objects that seem worthy of investigation. My samples now number in the hundreds--from the chipped to the smashed, from the dented to the squashed, from the pulverized to the putrid."
"What do you do with these things?"
"I give them names."
If there is an overarching theme to The New York Trilogy, it is the insufficiency of words to describe the world. Stillman's father combs the streets looking for broken things because he claims that our language is insufficient to describe what happens to an object when it is destroyed beyond use; is an umbrella with no cloth between the spokes still an umbrella? I do not know if Auster is aware of this, but there are cultures all around the world who think in exactly this manner. When this sort of thinking is applied to the detective novel, we come to understand that there is no way for a detective to find what he is looking for if he hasn't the words to describe it. All three of the protagonists in this book are following someone, and they all keep copious notes, but in the end, what good comes from writing it down? Truth remains elusive.
The second and third novellas play like a variation on a theme. Ghosts follows a man named Blue hired by a man named White to watch a man named Black--and all the peripheral characters on down the line are named after colors. This is a wink from Auster, a clue that we are not reading fact but fiction, and that he can create as he sees fit. The suggestion here is that a detective's work is as much to create as it is to discover. In a complicated bit of self-reflexivity, we begin to wonder who is watching whom--and for that matter, who is who. But Ghosts, for the most part, treads too nearly to the same ground as City of Glass while lacking the human connection that Quinn provides.
Much better is the final novella, The Locked Room, a name that mystery enthusiasts will immediately recognize as a type of book or story in which the detective must figure out how a crime was perpetrated in a room that usually would be impossible to enter. But again Auster subverts our expectations; the novella does not begin with a locked room but ends with it; it does not ask how one gets in to the locked room but how to get another man out. (And of course, it must be noted that by ending in a locked room, we have come full circle from the mad experiments of Stillman's father in City of Glass).
In the room is a man named Fanshawe, a brilliant man who disappears and burdens his wife with the task of contacting his childhood friend, the narrator, to read his unpublished novels and judge whether or not they are worthy of publication. The books become a minor hit among critics, but the presence of Fanshawe in the narrator's life begins to complicate his new marriage to Fanshawe's wife. Under the guise of writing a biography, the narrator sets out to find Fanshawe and perhaps take him out of the equation permanently.
Like all the protagonists of The New York Trilogy, he becomes obsessed to the point where the search is all that he can focus on, and it brings him near the brink of destruction. In Auster's world, the detective is forever being forced into a double-bind: by the very nature of knowledge he cannot find what he is looking for, but he cannot simply quit the search. Like Stillman's father picking garbage off of New York streets, we are forced to wonder if you can call a detective who has no ability to detect a detective at all.