Making A List: My Top 5 Post-Modern Detective Novels

by Lookout Intern, Joe Worthen

#5 – Noir by Robert Coover

Noir is essentially a compendium of detective tropes written in 2nd person, strung together to give the impression of narrative. You, Philip M Noir, spend most of the book drunk, searching for a widow in a maze of murder, jazz and cigarette smoke. As goons continually beat you in the head, victims change into suspects, corpses turn up living, and dead end clues pile up with the bullet casings.

#4 – Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essog, a low-level wiseguy with Tourettes as he attempts to investigate of the death of his mentor, Frank Minna. Lionel’s unique voice could easily go overboard but instead Lethem uses the platform of Tourettes to generate engaging language peppered with great images, non-sequiturs and profanity.

#3 – Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Postmodern granddaddy Thomas Pynchon returns to the detective narrative in Inherent Vice. The New York grid is replaced with palm-lined streets of Southern California and the hard-boiled detective is replaced with an observant stoner named Doc Sportello. With the 60s at an end and the zeitgeist in flux, Doc helps his ex-girlfriend Shasta get to the bottom of a sun washed LA murder plot. (Also check out The Crying of Lot 49)

#2 – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle begins with Toru Okada trying to solve the everyday case of a missing cat but that quickly complicates. In just a few chapters, Toru winds up divorced and submerged in a mystery he barely understands. In Murakami’s Japan an important clue is just as likely to be found in a dream as in the real world and the effect is a pervasive unrealness. But somehow, through this haze of stacked realities, Murakami manages to maintain a vivid emotionality in his characters that most pomo mysteries don’t even approach.

#1 – The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

Though he wasn’t the first author to play with the detective genre in a literary way, Paul Auster wrote the quintessential pomo mystery when he wrote The New York Trilogy. He wrote it three times. Auster plays with bare tropes like Noir but doesn’t come across as cynical or hurried. The New York Trilogy slowly introduces its crossbred writer/detectives to their lonely mysteries in a New York that often feels empty. As the detectives investigate, the writers deconstruct the mystery genre in beautiful, stark meditations.

Other interesting variations:

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
The Names by Don Delillo
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle
Panopticon by David Bajo