Paul Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947 to middle class parents. After attending Columbia University he lived in France for four years. Since returning to America in 1974, he has published poems, essays, novels and translations.
"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"
Quinn, a lonely, disaffected writer, is awakened one night by a phone call asking for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency. Although he brushes off the initial call, he begins to reflect on the detective novels he writes under a pseudonym. Inspired by the spirit of Max Power, the narrator of his books, Quinn claims to be Auster the next time the unknown caller asks for the detective.
The wrong number turns out to be Peter Stillman, a man who speaks with a strange cadence and style, possibly mixing truth and fiction. Peter was irreparably harmed by his father’s linguistic research. Believing that his son would learn to speak the language of God if he was kept from ever learning everyday language, for nine years Peter’s father beat him every time he spoke. Eventually, Peter’s father was sentenced to jail, and Peter recuperated in an institution.
Peter Stillman, Sr., is about to be released from prison, and Peter’s wife wants a detective to keep him safe from this insane man. Quinn agrees to take the case, slipping into the character of Max Power to secure a retaining fee. He begins his investigation by reading the elder Stillman’s language research and finds that he believes in the possibility of creating a modern day Tower of Babel to return to language in its purest form. Quinn devotes himself to following Stillman around New York City, chronicling the man’s strange behavior. While ostensibly engaging in detective work, Quinn becomes part of a discourse on the nature of language. In the end, he gets close to his subject, but only succeeds in losing himself.