The Mysteries of Fiction Indexing


From childhood I have loved series novels, such as Anne of Green Gables and the Narnia books. As I grew older, the Peter Wimsey and Spenser mysteries and the Bujold science-fiction saga of Miles Vorkosigan became some of my top favorite novels. Discovering a new novel that continues a series is one of the keenest pleasures in my life.

But anyone who reads series fiction knows how difficult it is to keep track of what events occurred in which book. You recall an incident, but you donít know which of six, eight, or ten novels to pick up. In what book did Anne meet Susan Baker? When did Peter first propose to Harriet Vane?

To keep it all straight, the reader needs an index.

Hazel K. Bell, who has written several fascinating articles about the indexing of fiction, presented a paper to the Society of Indexers in 1992, which was later published in The Indexer. The very title asks the question, "Should fiction be indexed?" Bell writes, "Indeed, indexes to fiction are rarely produced, not generally demanded, and often assumed to be unnecessary or unimportant." Bell herself has indexed some of A. S. Byattís novels, which Iím certain would aid scholars of Byattís works and illuminate the novels for a more casual reader. Bell quoted Hans Wellisch as saying, "Don Quixote, War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, to name only a few mighty tomes with dozens or even hundreds of characters, places and events, lack indexes. . . many readers. . .may wish to return to a passage in which a certain character appears, but find it difficult to do so for want of an index."

I believe that lovers of popular series fiction need indexes as much as a scholar studying one multi-layered novel. So I can only say that I was excited when David K. Ream came up with the idea of indexing Les Robertsí mystery novels and asked me if I was interested in taking on the project.

Dave and I have worked together for many years. I was hired by Banks-Baldwin Law Publishing Company in 1980 and trained as a legal indexer. Dave had written the mainframe indexing programs that my company still uses today, and we call him when the programs need tweaking. He knew that I had an interest in indexing fiction, although it was something I had never done before.

Why would a computer consultant want his own index? Dave owns a company, Leverage Technologies. He is also associated with Indexing Research as the corporate/government partner for Indexing Researchís CINDEX software products. He sells a number of utilities which add certain checking or processing features to CINDEX-produced files. In 1997, he decided that it would be beneficial to have his own index that he could use to demonstrate his programs to potential clients. CINDEX is sold to all kinds of indexers ó medical, legal, scientific, scholarly, etc. Rather than favoring one type, Dave thought he would do something different and have an index to fiction created.

Dave first considered a mystery series that was one of his favoritesóthe Archy McNally books by Lawrence Sanders. Although he wanted only to create a secondary research aid to the novels, Dave checked with his attorney and was advised to get permission from the publisher or author. A letter to the publisher went unanswered. So Dave turned to a Cleveland friend, an author in his own right and a past-president of the Mystery Writers of America. He asked Les Roberts for Lawrence Sandersí home address.

"Lawrence Sanders? Heís dead," Les replied.

So Dave decided to find another series to index. And as it turned out, the second thought was the better one. Les Roberts was the author of a popular and continuing mystery series, and he readily gave permission for his books to be indexed. Better yet, the series hero is a born-and-bred Clevelander and the series is set in Cleveland, Ohioóthe hometown of Dave and myself, and the location of Leverage Technologies.

Dave and I had to come to an agreement on the scope of the series. There were nine books when I began indexing (and a tenth has recently been published). Dave wanted to keep the index to a manageable size, particularly when we decided that he would pay me by the entry. We decided to aim for about 2000 entries. To keep within this limit, we decided to index only the seven books which were currently available in print.

The books are written in first person, told by private investigator Milan Jacovich, a divorced man with two sons who live with their mother. Over the course of the series, Milan has several different close women friends, but their presence is only occasionally important to the plot. His best friend is a Cleveland police lieutenant, who is sometimes useful in his investigationsóalmost as useful as his uneasy relationship with two members of the Cleveland mafia. Milan is doggedly persistent in his work and unafraid of various menacing tough guys who try to persuade him to stop his investigations. Author Roberts has avoided the "hard-boiled detective" stereotype by making Milan a sensitive man who enjoys reading. The novels contain many references to books, music, and movies.

Deciding exactly what to index and how to organize the index was complicated.

Organization of the index

Dave and I decided to cite each book by a two-letter abbreviation of its title; e.g., PP for Pepper Pike, DS for Deep Shaker, SC for A Shoot in Cleveland. Fortunately, no two of the titles had duplicate initials.

Deciding how to organize the index was a major challenge. Working in law for almost twenty years, I originally thought in terms of subheadings beginning with key words in alphabetical order. I indexed the first book of the series, Pepper Pike, and gave Dave a copy. He zeroed in on the heading for Richard Amber, the murder victim:

  Amber, Richard
    found, PP 168-70
    ...intervening entries...
    missing, PP 15-20

Dave asked, "How can he be found before heís missing?"

I did some research and found that the rule for peopleís lives is "bornómarriedódied," (event order), not "bornódiedómarried" (alphabetical order). The subheadings for characters had to be re-cast in event order.

I use CINDEX as my indexing software. To make the index sort alphabetically by heading but in event order for subheadings, I forced the alphabetical arrangement by assigning alphabetical letters to each subheading.


  Amber, Richard
    {a}missing, PP 15-20
    {b}, {c}...intervening entries...
    {d}found, PP 168-70

In CINDEX, characters in braces denote alternate sort sequencing that will be seen only in draft format. I also used alternate sort sequencing before the page abbreviations so that when two books mentioned the same thing, the page cites would be in published book order rather than alphabetical order by acronym, for instance:

  Renee (clerk in City Hall Records Room), PP 150; FC 62; CB 231

Dave also requested that I keep entries to two line levels: heading and first subheading, for ease of use when the index was put online. The only exception to this was the heading for Milan himself. I decided to organize the index by writing entries for scenes, characters, place names, etc. Whether or not to create entries at the point-of-view character was a question. I decided to exclude all action-type scene mentions and instead just create the entries around various aspects of Milanís life. Subheadings under his name consist of terms such as "appearance" and "apartment." I also picked up "doodling gallows," one of his recurring habits mentioned in almost every book. Although Milan claims to have been doodling gallows all his life, I couldnít help but think that it was apropos for a private investigator...and perhaps somewhat akin to the half-guilty reactions suffered by Lord Peter Wimsey after successfully apprehending a murderer.

Other subheadings that I created under the heading for Milan himself were "name mispronounced" and "name pronounced correctly." The mispronunciation of Milanís first and last names is a constant theme throughout the books. People who pronounce the name correctly are more likely to be characters that the author, or Milan, approves of.

What Was Indexed

Characters: I decided that every named character would become an index entry. I even picked up some "passing mentions," such as when Milan names several people that have been friends of his since high school. I wrote the entry to reflect the casual mention: "Alex Cerne, mentioned as friend of Milan, PP 49." When this character appeared in a scene three books later, I was glad to have indexed the passing mention.

Charactersí names were sometimes a problem. Milanís best friend is police lieutenant Marko Meglich. Milan knows that Marko wishes to be called by the more Anglicized name of "Mark." Sometimes Milan calls him "Mark," particularly if he needs a police favor. Other times he calls him "Marko" to needle him. I decided to call him "Marko" in the index, since that was his birthname and also the name engraved on his own personal mug.

In the first novel, Pepper Pike, Milan has several encounters with a Mafioso who wears sunglasses. Since Milan never knows his name in that book, he calls him "Sunglasses" in the narrative. "Sunglasses" and another Mafioso with no distinguishing characteristics give Milan a beating. As I indexed Pepper Pike, I had to use the heading "Sunglasses." Several books later, Milan meets "Sunglasses" again and knows that his name is Joey. It isnít until several scenes later that the reader is given Joeyís surname. I wound up indexing him by his full name but putting Milanís nickname for him in parentheses, since using the name might otherwise confuse someone looking up references to Pepper Pike. The full heading became: Bonfiglia, Joey (Mafia errand boy, aka "Sunglasses") (with a cross-reference from the heading "Sunglasses"). The other Mafioso is later revealed, several books later, to be John Terranova. At this point I stopped indexing the later novels and went back to Pepper Pike to add entries for this character.

Finally, Milan has several important women friends over the course of the series. Three are his lovers, while one is a possibility that never comes to anything. This presented a problem well-known to advice columnists, who are frequently asked, "What do I call the person Iím dating, in love with but not living with, sleeping with, living with, etc., when I have to make a social introduction?" "Boyfriend" or "girlfriend" sounds too high-schoolish, "lover" may tell too much while "roommate" is ambiguous. I needed a category that would include all four women and finally settled on Romantic interests (a subheading under the Jacovich, Milan heading).

Scene-by-Scene Indexing: I tried to write at least one index entry for every scene. Telephone calls were sometimes picked up if important information was given; telephone calls that were merely the set-up for a face-to-face meeting were often not indexed.

One problem with indexing almost every scene was the wording. Since the book is written in first person, Milan is in the midst of every scene described. I had to be careful not to begin every entry with "Milan requests..." or "Milan interviews..." Conversely I was not as concerned about picking a strong key word for the beginning of each entry, because the index subheadings are not organized alphabetically (as discussed earlier).

A larger problem was presented by the necessity of keeping certain elements of the novels secret. Dave and I had decided early on not to reveal the identities of the various murderers; Dave had even written a suggested editorial note entry which I liked and included:

    Youíll have to read the books to find out!

After all, part of the fun of reading any mystery is guessing, along with the protagonist, who the murderer is, while picking up on the authorís clues. I had to be careful not to reveal the fact, in the entries under his or her name, that a character is a murderer. Often there was a final, and violent, confrontation between Milan and the murderer. I usually just indexed these with the ambiguous term, "confrontation with Milan." There are other confrontations which were not with murderers, so I felt the description preserved the murderersí identities. Hazel K. Bell discusses this problem in her article, "Indexing fiction: a story of complexity" (The Indexer, October 1991). Bell states, "Elements of mystery, undeniably, cannot survive indexing: a charming childís riddle quoted I listed under its solution, Ďeggí; and to read the index before the text would indeed negate the sheer shock of the sudden death of one heroine. But consulting the index to such books before the text should be deplored anyway!"

Bellís conclusion is questioned in a student paper found on the Internet, Origins and Objectives of An Index to the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. The author, Lisa Mirabile, states, "...Doing so does change the readerís experience as designed by the author. Many things, however, can similarly alter a readerís experience, such as reading the pages out of order, or even taking so long to read the whole book that important early details slip the readerís mind. The author can go only so far in dictating the readerís experience."

An index to a series seems to show the exception to Bellís statement that the reader should not consult the index before reading the text. I can easily imagine a person reading three or four of the novels and then going to the index to look something up. Thus I decided that it was important to reveal as few of the "surprises" as possible.

For instance, in Pepper Pike, Richard Amber calls Milan to request his help and then disappears for most of the novel. The reader does not know if he has been murdered or kidnapped. Itís even possible that his absence is voluntary. Finally, on page 168, Amberís corpse is pulled out of the Chagrin River. I indexed this scene simply as

  Amber, Richard
    found, PP 168-70

However, I must confess that I was not always able to conceal all surprises. A similar situation to the one in Pepper Pike occurs in The Cleveland Connection, where Bogdan Zdrale is missing until page 96. Since there was a major scene at his funeral, which I wanted to index, I decided not to try to conceal his death.

Another "surprise" that I thought it important to conceal was the death of Milanís best friend, Marko Meglich, in the eighth book of the series. I thought it might be emotionally difficult for a reader in the middle of an earlier novel to skim down the entries at the heading for Marko and learn that he had died. The death occurred at the end of The Cleveland Local; Meglich dies saving Milan from a murderer. It is one of the best-written and most emotionally riveting scenes in the series. The index entry says merely:

  Meglich, Marko
    shot, CL 277-79

In the book directly following the death, A Shoot in Cleveland, Milanís grief and depression are described, and several friends tell him to get over it and go on with life. Again, I had to be careful not to give to much away. The entries here read:

  Meglich, Marko
    Milanís thoughts and feelings about, SC 2-4
    Ed Stahlís advice to Milan, SC 4-7
    Vukovichís advice to Milan, SC 137-38

Setting: Many mystery series are known for their settings. Tony Hillermanís mysteries are based in the American Southwest, while Robert B. Parkerís Spenser series takes place mainly in Boston. Readers who have been to these locales take pleasure in the authorsí descriptions of familiar places, while readers who do not know the areas have the fun of learning something new about the place. Les Roberts is a good publicist for Cleveland in his novels.

For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the United States, Cleveland is a large city in the state of Ohio in the American midwest, set on Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes that lie between the United States and Canada. While not as large as New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, it has a huge mix of different ethnic types that contribute to its variety and diversity. Cleveland has a world-class art museum and symphony orchestra, its own opera company, and several world-renowned hospitals. Suburbs surrounding the city are full of gracious older homes at very affordable prices, in contrast to cities like New York and Los Angeles where houses are not in the average familyís price range.

Milanís ethnic heritage is Slovenian. His parents emigrated to the United States and his father became a steelworker. Milanís ethnicity mirrors the widely varied ethnic composition of Cleveland, a city with a large number of inhabitants from eastern Europe. Milanís father, a blue-collar worker, was able to send his son to college so that Milan could become a professional man. Milanís background is similar to many other immigrantsí sons and daughters.

Author Roberts draws freely on his love of Cleveland to provide the series with an authentic and realistic background. There are many restaurants mentioned in the series. At Daveís suggestion, I created two headings for these, rather than indexing them at the restaurant name. The headings are:

  Restaurants and bars, fictional
  Restaurants and bars, real

This was one of the more fun things to index in the series. As a person addicted to eatingóneeding to do it two and even three times a dayóbut hating to cook, Iím familiar with some of the restaurants that are mentioned in the books. Other mentions have been inspirationalóI found a very good restaurant named Jackís Deli from the references in two books of the series.

Some of the fictional restaurants are thinly disguised versions of real restaurants, such as Watershed instead of the real restaurant, Watermark.

I considered creating a third heading, Restaurants and bars, defunct, since some of the restaurants mentioned in the novels have gone out of business. I decided not to use this heading because it would need constant updating as restaurants come and go.

I indexed Cleveland hotels, statues and monuments, bridges, buildings, and suburbs. Dave gave me some useful advice when he told me to provide more information when I wrote such entries. So Dillardís became Dillardís Department Store and Rocky River became Rocky River (suburb) because there is also a river by that name. However, I decided not to index individual streets. There were just too many references to street names as Milan drives around the city and nearby suburbs to interview witnesses.

Les Robertsí descriptions of the city add much to the series.

Of course, Roberts actually lives in Cleveland. His perceptive descriptions are in sharp contrast to a recent best-seller I read set in Shaker Heights, a wealthy Cleveland suburb. In that novel, the author has the main character take a toll bridgeówhich doesnít existóto Cleveland Hopkins Airport. Les Roberts would never make a mistake like that!

Miscellaneous Bits Indexed: There are many references in the series to books, movies, Cleveland radio stations, and television programs. I did not pick up references to individual actorsí names, but I did create separate headings for Books, Movies, Radio Broadcasting, and Television. Incidentally, one of the novels, A Shoot in Cleveland, is about a movie being made in Cleveland. The many movie references are surely a reflection of the authorís interest in filmóLes Roberts and Dave are both on the board of the Cleveland Film Society. Les also worked for most of his career in Hollywood in television and film.

I also picked up all references to the Cleveland Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers (respectively, the baseball, football, and basketball teams). Cleveland fans take their team sports very seriously, so these were essential entries.

It has been my experience that most indexers have a great sense of humor. Several indexers Iíve worked with have found their greatest pleasure in writing amusing parodies of company memos. Others seem to make it a full-time job to find funny stuff on the Internet and e-mail it to everyone they know.

I thoroughly enjoyed Robertsí sense of humor in the series. When I indexed the first novel, I laughed aloud as I read this line: "I gave her my card and she regarded it as if it were made of Kryptonite." I just had to index this! I wrote an entry:

  Kryptonite, Milanís card regarded as, PP 208

I thought the entry might make an amusing tidbit for browsers of the index.

When the author saw this entry in an early draft of the index, he was pleased, and commented that he thought he would be remembered for his writing more than for the intricacy or plot turns of the mysteries themselves. I believe Roberts has real insight here; I know that I cannot recall the detailed plots of the mysteries Iíve read. I like Sayreís Wimsey books for the characters of Peter and Harriet, and particularly for Peterís amusing conversation; I like the Spenser series for the dialogue and relationships between Spenser, Susan, and Hawk.

Some of the humorous entries I picked up from the witty narration are:

  Jacovich, Lila (Milanís ex-wife)
    guilt, as midwest distributor of, FC 131
  Hairspray, cuts off circulation and makes wearer snap at people, FC 4-5
  Toledo, Ohio
    drive from Cleveland to Toledo is like a drive-by sensory deprivation center, CC 76

That last observation is dead-on.

Earlier I stated that I created entries when Clevelandís sports teams are mentioned. Several years ago, the owner moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Maryland, where they became the Baltimore Ravens, an object of hatred for every good Clevelander. I made the following entries:

  Baltimore Ravens football team
    chances of winning the Super Bowl are Ďnevermore,í CB 141
    Cleveland fansí favorite team is anyone playing against them, SC 308

Finding and indexing these humorous bits greatly enhanced my experience of indexing the series.


I had always thought that indexing fiction would be easier than indexing legal materials. A good indexer of legal materials must understand the law, be able to connect identical topics that are called by different names over a hundred years of legislation, and index to accommodate both the attorney and the layman. To my surprise, I found fiction indexing just as challenging and perhaps even more difficult. The decisions of what to index, when to write an entry and what to ignore, and particularly what to conceal, were essential and important puzzles to solve. It was fascinating to explore this new field of indexing, and I would like to thank Dave Ream and Les Roberts for giving me the opportunity to work on the project.


Bell, Hazel K., "Indexes as fiction and fiction as paper chase," The Indexer, Vol. 20 No. 4 (October 1997), pp. 209-11.

Bell, Hazel K., "Indexing fiction: a story of complexity," The Indexer, Vol. 17 No. 4 (October 1991), pp. 251-56.

Bell, Hazel K., "Should fiction be indexed? The indexability of text," The Indexer, Vol. 18 No. 2, (October 1992), pp. 83-86.

Mirabile, Lisa, "Origins and Objectives of An Index to The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje," found on the Internet at