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Crosswords And Con Men Meet In 'Manhattan'

The Thieves of Manhattan, an enigmatic new book by Adam Langer, is hard to classify. On one level, it's a novel filled with intrigue and mystery; on another, it's a thinly veiled memoir about a writer's relationship to the publishing industry; on yet another, it could be nothing more than a giant con game.

Into which of these categories does Langer think his book falls? "Well, I hope it's all three," he tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "I hope there's a certain amount of truth in it, I hope there's a lot of invention, and I hope it'll take everyone by surprise, which is what a good con game should do."

To complicate matters even more, Langer announces for the first time -- "I haven't told my publisher and I haven't told my editor; you're the first person I'm telling" -- that he has hidden five or six puzzles throughout the book. "They don't add to the plot, necessarily, but it could give you another level of understanding if you catch them," he says.

That plot, by the way, sounds simple enough when Langer explains its basics. The Thieves of Manhattan is "a story about a down-on-his-luck writer who gets an offer he can't refuse ... because he's got no money. And the offer is to put his name to a fake memoir and, in so doing, scam the publishing industry."

After this relatively straightforward beginning, though, the novel begins to twist and turn like a Mobius strip. It makes sense, then, to learn that Langer was heavily influenced by a celebrated puzzle-maker: "Every day before I sat down to write, I did the New York Times crossword puzzle. If anybody influenced me for this book, it was Will Shortz."

Langer is so dedicated to enigmas that he even invents his own publishing vernacular in the book. In The Thieves of Manhattan, to "Woolf" means to think rapidly, just like Virginia Woolf (who was famous for converting her own fast-moving consciousness into prose). A large advance is called a Frazier, after Charles Frazier, the author of Cold Mountain. Characters drink a libation called a Fitzgerald.

"I didn't want to overdo it with the language, but I did use it a bit," the author says. He plays with jargon in order to pay homage to the technical language that often pops up in thrillers: "There's hardboiled jargon, ... technical jargon when you go through procedurals. And I thought, if I'm writing a thriller about the publishing industry, it should have its own slang, too -- and it should be literary."

Langer also looked to some of the greatest publishing hoaxes in history for inspiration. He cites the story of Magdalen King-Hall, for example, who wrote an account of a "young woman of fashion" living in Paris in the 18th century, then tried to pass off the book as an actual diary. Then there's Ern Malley, a fictional modernist poet created by two Australian writers who took that nation by storm in the 1940s.

More recent events also stirred Langer. "I started writing this during a period where there was just a ton of this going on," he says, "when we had people who were supposedly plagiarizing memoirs or making them up" -- writers such as Margaret Seltzer, who wrote a fabricated memoir about having a hard-knock life in South Central Los Angeles that was published in 2008.

Why do publishing professionals keep getting fooled by fakers? Langer thinks it's because they "love being taken in by a good story. And sometimes a person's talent as a storyteller can go past people's nonsense detector."

The author, for his part, has always been drawn to tales of deceit, like Orson Welles' film F for Fake. In a broader sense, Langer also intends Thieves of Manhattan to be sort of like Sunset Boulevard: that is, "something that both show[s] respect to an industry but savage[s] it at the same time."

A labyrinthine plot, made-up jargon, influences from the crossword puzzle to Billy Wilder -- it's no wonder that while writing his novel, Langer tried to keep himself on track by taping colored index cards scribbled with details on a wall. "But I actually never looked at them," he says, because they kept getting detached.

Luckily, that wasn't much of a roadblock for Langer. "Most of this was written in a spurt of frantic action, blasting Elvis Costello music for about six weeks," he says.

Then again, The Thieves of Manhattan may not truly be finished, even though its final manuscript has been published. When asked whether his story ends on his book's last page, Langer gives a typically mysterious answer: "No story does."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff