Building a mystery

Monday, July 24, 2006 at 3:56 PM

Novels are like fingerprints: they may share the same basic pattern, but each one is unique – especially if you consider the infinite variety of ways they can affect people. I'm a huge fan of Paul Auster, so whenever I meet someone who’s similarly enthralled, I always want to dig deeper. One of the first questions I ask is how they discovered him.

I first heard about Auster through a friend of mine, and fell in love with his books after reading City of Glass, a detective story that brilliantly subverts the genre. It was unlike any other book I'd ever read, and I remember finishing it in a single day. Five years later, I've plowed through almost all of Auster's books, so I was excited to see them begin to appear in Google Book Search. I was even more excited when I realized I could use the index to explore his connections to other writers.

Case in point: I plugged in the search terms "Paul Auster," "City of Glass" and "crime," and found a book identifying Raymond Chandler as a writer likely to have influenced him. It turns out Chandler wrote canonical detective stories in the '30s and '40s – the kind where the hero gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a mysterious stranger, who just happens to supply the single vital clue that solves the crime. That's exactly what takes place in City of Glass, except there's a metaphysical twist – the hero is a mystery writer, and the stranger on the other end of the line says he's looking for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency.

It's inspiring to imagine that as we continue to build the Google Book Search index, more people will be able to unravel mysteries – identifying patterns and connections not only in literature, but every subject that spurs our curiosity.


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