In City of Glass, Daniel Quinn is a lonely mystery novelist who lives in New York City, where he writes one mystery novel per year, reads a great deal, and takes many walks. One night, he answers a wrong number and decides to impersonate the man being sought, Paul Auster the detective. He goes to meet his clients, the Stillmans.
Peter Stillman is a young man who has recently left a sanatorium after spending nine years of his childhood locked by himself in a dark room as part of an experiment conducted by his deranged father, Professor Peter Stillman. The Stillmans have sought Paul Auster to protect Peter from his father, who is himself scheduled to be released from a hospital for the criminally insane the next day. Virginia Stillman, the wife of the younger Stillman, pays Quinn with a five-hundred-dollar check in the name of Paul Auster and kisses him passionately before he leaves.
Quinn reads Professor Stillman’s academic work, which cites Henry Dark, who argued in the seventeenth century that a new Tower of Babel would be built in America in 1960, the year Stillman locked up his son. For the two weeks following Professor Stillman’s release, Quinn follows him as Stillman walks about the city, picks up objects, and makes notes in a red notebook. Quinn keeps detailed notes of Stillman’s route in a red notebook of his own and eventually realizes that Stillman’s path is describing letters on the city streets. The first fifteen letters spell “The Tower of Babel.”
Feeling emboldened by understanding Stillman’s message, Quinn speaks with his quarry three times, using the personas of Quinn, Henry Dark, and finally Peter Stillman. Each time, Stillman responds with delight at the name Quinn uses, since “Quinn” rhymes with “twin,” Henry Dark is a name Stillman invented in his research because it shared initials with Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, and Peter Stillman is his own name and that of his son.
Eventually, Quinn loses Stillman’s trail and seeks Paul Auster the detective, hoping that the real detective will be able to help him protect the young Peter Stillman. Quinn finds only one Paul Auster in the New York City phone book, but when he goes to his apartment, he finds that it belongs to Paul Auster the writer, who knows nothing of detective work but tells Quinn of his current study of the print history of Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615).
After meeting with Auster, Quinn phones Virginia Stillman to tell her he has lost the trail, but her phone is constantly busy. Convinced that he must pursue the case nonetheless, Quinn stakes out the alley next to the Stillman home. He slowly reduces the amount of food and sleep he needs, taking shelter in a dumpster as necessary and always writing in his red notebook. He becomes an itinerant.
When Quinn runs out of money, he calls Auster, who had offered to cash the advance check Virginia Stillman had written to Quinn in Auster’s name. Auster tells Quinn that the check bounced and that Professor Peter Stillman committed suicide two and a half months earlier. Quinn goes home to his apartment, only to find it occupied by a young woman who tells him she rented it after the the writer who used to live there disappeared.
Quinn returns to Peter Stillman’s apartment and curls up in a small room. Trays of hot food appear regularly, and he lives alone and naked, writing in his red notebook and sleeping a great deal. Quinn’s red notebook ends by asking what will happen when the red notebook is full.
An unnamed narrator addresses readers, claiming to have accompanied Paul Auster to the Stillman apartment and found Quinn’s red notebook. The narrative, he claims, has been pieced together from Auster’s recollections and the contents of the notebook.
In Ghosts, also narrated by an unnamed narrator, White hires Blue to watch Black, providing Blue with the key to the apartment across from Black’s on Orange Street. White asks for weekly reports and pays a five-hundred-dollar advance with ten fifty-dollar bills.
Blue watches Black, who spends most of his time reading and writing, occasionally going out for...