In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, our reluctant detective is Oedipa Mass, a California housewife whose name is our first hint at the crazy world we are entering. As the critic Jon Thompson writes in Fiction, Crime and Empire: Pynchon’s novel “offers a paradigm for understanding postmodern crime fiction.”
On her return from a party whose “hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue,” Oedipa learns that her former lover, an eccentric California mogul named Pierce Inverarity, has died and named her the executor of his estate. She travels to San Narciso (Pierce’s hometown), where she meets the lawyer assigned to help her. He is Metzger, formerly the child movie star known as Baby Igor.
The catalyst of Oedipa’s adventure is her discovery of a mysterious set of stamps in Inverarity’s estate which he has left to be auctioned off as one lot. Those stamps may or may not be tied to a worldwide conspiracy dating back centuries. Her efforts to determine whether the stamps are forgeries launch her on a wild journey into the California heart of darkness.
Wending her way around drugged-out rock bands, right-wing crazies, a psychotherapist named Dr. Hilarius who is himself insane, and other outlandish characters, she begins to uncover what may indeed be a clandestine international communication system operated since the 14th century by something known as the Tristero. In the bathroom of a bar, Oedipa sees a symbol that she later learns is a muted post horn, supposedly Tristero’s trademark. She begins spotting that symbol elsewhere, along with the secret postal system’s drop boxes, which are labeled W.A.S.T.E. (“We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire).
Many critics view this short novel as Pynchon’s finest work. As Professor Richard Poirier wrote in his 1966 New York Times review of the novel:
The “crying of Lot 49” refers to an auction, but the phrase evokes the recurrent suspicion on Oedipa’s part that there is “revelation in progress all around her,” that the stamps, “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” are themselves “crying” a message–not about Pierce Inverarity necessarily, or even about Oedipa, but about “their Republic,” about America, its inheritances and what we inherit from it, including things like used lots of stamps and used car lots.
This is classic Pynchon, where, as one critic wrote, “the more we think we know, the less we know we know.”And all set within the structure of the American detective story that Pynchon simultaneously copies and spoofs. To hear more, here is a link to a lecture on the novel by Yale professor Amy Hungerford.