Without Paul Auster there would be no True Detective

You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of truly innovative works of crime fiction since Edgar Allan Poe: and one of them is The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, whose death was announced today. Like many books that do something new, the big publishers did not welcome it with open arms, as Auster recalled when I interviewed him in 2022

“[It] was rejected by 17 publishers: doors weren’t opening and people saying, ‘welcome in, we love your crazy books’. No, I wound up having a very, very small publisher to start with.” He seemed to regard this as a badge of honour, pointing out to me that Samuel Beckett’s first novel had also been rejected, no fewer than 36 times. 

As it turned out, The New York Trilogy was a huge success: not on the scale of an Agatha Christie or a Robert Ludlum in terms of sales, but proving a hit with a younger demographic not terribly interested in crime fiction. Detective fiction has always been popular: Auster made it cool. In fact he was so popular with hard-up intellectuals that the Union Square branch of Barnes & Noble had to keep his books locked in the basement because they were stolen so frequently. (“You had to ask [for them]. I was sort of flattered,” Auster told me). 

But although the Mystery Writers of America nominated the first part of the New York Trilogy for an Edgar award, Auster insisted that the work was something very different from traditional crime fiction. “I’m using the genre in the way, say, that Cervantes used chivalric romance for other purposes, or the way that Beckett used vaudeville for Waiting for Godot,” he once said. 

The trilogy comprises three novellas, first published separately in 1985 and 1986: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. (They were first issued in one volume under the title The New York Trilogy in the UK in 1987). The novellas were the 37-year-old Auster’s first attempt at a sustained work of fiction following a long and ultimately thwarted attempt to make his name as a poet. (He had, however, won considerable critical acclaim for his 1982 memoir-cum-book of philosophical reflections, The Invention of Solitude). 

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