The first clue came in the form of an evocative trailer posted on YouTube this summer.
In a lyrical black-and-white clip, a mysterious figure stumbled along a shadowy coastline, water lapping the sand at his feet. A voice read elliptical prose about a circuitous journey at sea, as the imagery built to a unsettling final shot: a man with his lips sewn together staring at the camera with knowing, unforgiving eyes. The effect was a bit like watching a Calvin Klein couture ad directed by the Marquis de Sade.
The teaser turned out to be a clever bit of online marketing for the new novel "S." (Mulholland, $35), which is arriving Tuesday wrapped in a similar aura of mystery. Created by the man who might be Hollywood's chief conspiratorial mind, J.J. Abrams, and written by Doug Dorst, the cryptically titled "S." tells the story of two college students searching for the truth about an enigmatic author, V.M. Straka, a character who's accused of nearly as many crimes as the French sadist.
The amateur sleuths correspond with each other in the margins of a library copy of Straka's last published work, "Ship of Theseus," leaving a trail of postcards, newspaper articles, maps and other archival materials tucked into the pages to guide each other, and the reader, through their quest to learn the truth about the late, prolific recluse.
"The idea here was to create an object through which a relationship was initiated and cultivated and a romance blossomed," Abrams said in a phone interview last week.
Abrams' passion for arcane mysteries has fueled much of his creative output in Hollywood. The metaphysically knotty drama "Lost" unfolded like a grand philosophical puzzle, and his earlier series "Alias" was just as preoccupied with conspiracy and misdirection.
His movie projects, too, have been shrouded in secrecy – Abrams disclosed few details about the plot of his coming-of-age adventure/alien-invasion thriller "Super 8" before its release, and this summer's "Star Trek Into Darkness" identified Benedict Cumberbatch by an alias so that audiences wouldn't realize the actor had been cast as the famously wrathful Khan.
He hit upon the idea of "S." after discovering a novel that had been left behind by another traveler, and he drew inspiration from the murder mysteries of British author Dennis Wheatley, who included dossiers of evidence in his books.
"There was one I remember called 'Who Killed Robert Prentice?'" Abrams said. "It had a torn-up photograph in these little wax paper envelopes. As a child, I remember seeing those. That always stayed with me, that idea of getting a book, a packet, that was not just like any other book."
Opening "S." does feel like uncovering a literary artifact. The book comes in a black case embossed with the gothic capital letter; inside is that copy of "Ship of Theseus" with the messages between disgruntled grad student Eric and college senior Jen handwritten in the margins of the novel, which centers on a man who boards a strange ship and heads out on a perilous journey.
"We knew from the beginning that the inner novel would have to stand on its own as a work of literature that people are still talking about decades later," said novelist Doug Dorst. "After we'd committed to it, it did occur to me what I'd gotten myself into. It was about following the story through and taking as many idiosyncratic turns as presented themselves because I was trying to write as this other writer who is known for being an idiosyncratic writer."
Dorst already had earned acclaim for his 2009 debut "Alive in Necropolis," a dark satire set in California about a police officer struggling to cope in a town where the living and the dead coexist, not always harmoniously. He also wrote a well-received follow-up collection of short stories titled "The Surf Guru," and his work has been featured in McSweeney's, the literary magazine renowned for its innovative approach to design.
When Abrams contacted him to share the idea for "S.," Dorst quickly signed on.
"The formal conceit of the novel, in which you have the novel unfolding in the margins of another novel, that seemed interesting to me," Dorst said. "One of my favorite things to do in writing is to find different angles with which to tell a story -- being open to the idea that there are stories that might be served best by a really odd narrative approach."
Despite that early cinematic teaser trailer, Abrams insists he has no plan to adapt the book for the screen.
"The whole point of this project was to create this novel," Abrams said. "This is a story about how a book is used as a means of communication and sort of a catalyst for a great investigation that is also a love affair. It is sort of a celebration of 'the book,' that physical, analog thing."