09 January 2007


Constructing a mysterious index

[NOTE: Edited on 6-9-07 to fix missing indentations for index entries. -SM]

For years I have puzzled over the possibility of writing an index, to an imaginary book, in which a mystery is revealed and potentially solved. The book itself would not have to be a mystery, but there would have to be some kind of secret.

For example, suppose you had these entries:

La Traviata, clandestine meeting at, 145
Marters, Francine
meeting at La Traviata, 145

From these entries you would learn that Francine Marters met someone at La Traviata surreptitiously. An additional entry

Rapiere, Evan
   accidental discovery of La Traviata matches, 166

implies not only that Evan was not the person at the restaurant, but also that Evan might have been the reason the secret was necessary. A final entry,

Pfiser, Victor
   confronted by Evan Rapiere, 231

allows for the possibility that Victor was the other person with Francine (on page 145), such that Evan's discovery of the matches led to this confrontation.

What would make an index like this potentially interesting as a puzzle would be (a) the randomization of information, caused by the alphabetization of entries; (b) the summary-style labels in the index, which must naturally leave out much of the story; (c) the creativity of the labels, which can emphasize or omit interesting facts without destroying the quality of the index itself; and (d) the ability to tell many overlapping and long stories across just a few pages.

On the other hand, what makes an index puzzle challenging -- and the reason I've had no success so far -- is that the index must articulate all the facts; an index can have no secrets if it's going to work as a puzzle. For example, if this were a murder mystery, wouldn't the murder have to be indexed? If the index is going to be a good one (and that's a requirement for me, because otherwise it would seem too contrived), you'd have to have entries like these:

Rapiere, Evan
   murder of, 235
Marters, Francine
   guilty confession of, 469

Is there any way that a legitimate index could obfuscate information sufficiently enough to leave some mystery? In a way, an index must be too "honest" to allow for secrets.

The other problem, opposite to the honesty problem described above, is that if an index isn't specific enough, it's impossible to put the facts together in the first place. For example, if I changed the matches entry above to this:

Rapiere, Evan
   accidental discovery of match book, 166

there's no way to connect this to La Traviata without help. Similarly, if I change the murder entry to simply this:

Rapiere, Evan, 235


Rapiere, Evan
   surprised by an intruder, 235

then there is nothing in the index to clarify that Evan actually died.

I'm looking for ideas on how to get around these challenges. How much integrity can the index maintain without either giving too much away or leaving too many holes in the story?


Hi Seth,

How nice to see your blog! I am intrigued by your idea of a mystery written in the form of an index. Have you thought about writing a creative index to an actual mystery (written by you or someone else), as a means of determining how best to present your index?

Or you could try writing a short version first, perhaps as a poem.

Or, you could present it in small doses, a section at a time, rather than alphabetically. Maybe alternate the index sections with some longer text.

I have tried to write a short story (also in the form of a mystery, not because I read mysteries, but because indexers read mysteries) about an indexer in which the clues are found in the pages of the book being indexed. But I haven't gotten very far either (perhaps because I don't read mysteries very often). Then, another one, in which the characters meet via their contributions to Wikipedia.

Good luck!
Isn't there a Borges' short story in this format?
You need to read Nabokov's Pale Fire, which does exactly that. The index is part of the novel--and it reveals the ultimate mystery of the book, which many readers miss. It's also hilarious.
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