I’ve just got back from a lovely week’s holiday with the wife and the littlun. I always look forward to selecting a book or two to take away with me on holiday, and this year I selected a couple of novels by authors who were well recommended but new to me, namely The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster and I, Claudius by Robert Graves (the second of which I am still reading).

I had looked up a bit of information about Paul Auster and his trilogy in the past, and thought it sounded intriguing so thought I’d give it a go. The work is described as detective fiction, which is not a genre I am very familiar with (my only previous excursions into such territory being books such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Nine Tailors and The Moonstone).

The three novels that make up the trilogy, City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, were originally published separately (in 1985, -86 and -86 respectively) but are now generally published together in a single volume, as in the case of my edition pictured below.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

So, what are the books like? Well, let me start at the beginning – here is the opening sentence of City of Glass:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

A brilliant opening. This immediately draws you in and makes you want to find out more. As we read on, we discover that the man our narrator is referring to is a chap called Quinn, who is a writer. In fact Quinn is a writer of mystery novels which feature a private-eye detective called Max Work. However, these mystery novels are written under the pseudonym of William Wilson, and no one – not even his publisher – knows who the real writer of the novels is. Then, as if all this was not complicated and confusing enough, Quinn starts to receive phone calls from someone urgently wanting to speak to a Mr Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency.

Initially Quinn tries to put the person off, telling them that they must have the wrong number, but after he has hung up the phone we read:

For a brief moment he regretted having been so abrupt with the caller. It might have been interesting, he thought, to have played along with him a little. Perhaps he could have found out something about the case – perhaps even have helped in some way. ‘I must learn to think more quickly on my feet,’ he said to himself.

And so, when the caller rings back later on, Quinn decides to assume the role of Paul Auster, and take on the case. Thus begins a crazy adventure where the truth always seems to be just out of reach, as fact and fiction, chance and will are all mixed up together in this highly original and inventive tale.

Ghosts is a kind of Kafkaesque story where one character (a private eye called Blue) is hired by an unknown man (White) to spy on another unknown character (Black). Here, there is also a play on the tension between what is known / knowable and what is unknown / unknowable as Blue obsessively shadows Black, coming up with various different hypothesis and scenarios along the way, yet never really having confidence in any of them. I won’t spoil the ending by writing too much more here, but this is a powerful if nightmarish tale.

Then there is The Locked Room. This is quite different in style to the first two novels as it feels much more like a realistic account than the more quirky, parody-like feel of the first two novels. I also found that I developed a much closer relationship with the narrator in this book, as you really get inside his head.

To give a very, very brief summary of this book, a man called Fanshawe has gone missing some months ago and is now assumed to be dead. His old school friend (the narrator) is contacted by Fanshawe’s wife and asked if he will review and potentially help publish some writing that Fanshawe had secretly written. The narrator reluctantly accepts and then discovers that his old friend’s work is superb and it soon gets published and receives good reviews. Over time the narrator then becomes romantically attached to his old friend’s wife and even ends up marring her and becoming a father figure to the child she had with Fanshawe. However, one day a letter turns up which throws everything into chaos.

All three stories are well written – full of mystery and subtlety. However, as good as the first two books are, for me the brilliance of this trilogy is really established in the final book, which is both superb in it’s own right, and also cleverly ties in and makes sense of different strands from the first two books as well. I thoroughly recommend this trilogy.