1. The book:
  2. The time: the winter of 1969–1970
  3. The place: Los Angeles
    Plus a trip to Las Vegas. "Gordita Beach" is thought to be a fictionalized Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon himself lived from 1969 to 1970.
  4. The detective: Larry "Doc" Sportello, private investigator. Hippie pothead. A little short. Fan of John Garfield and the Lakers.
  5. The mystery: what happened to Mickey Wolfmann?
    Though this is just the tip of the iceberg (or whatever the desert equivalent of an iceberg is).
  6. The REAL mystery: what happened to the 1960s?
    One of the major themes of the book. The same question posed by Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and to some extent Pynchon's own Vineland. The question in this case referring to both hippie ideals and leftist activism.
  7. Context: COINTELPRO
    Pynchon casually drops this acronym on page 74 and moves on, not defining it for the reader and never using it again. It is entirely typical of Pynchon to be this offhand about something that is actually a vital piece of context for the story. The Wikipedia entry on COINTELPRO is required reading.
  8. Context: President Nixon
    Pynchon was not a fan.
  9. Context: The Manson family murders
    Took place only a few months prior to the time frame of Inherent Vice, and mentioned many times in the novel. If you are not familiar with this piece of history, it will be helpful to read up on it a little.
  10. Context: Heroin
    Coincidentally, I was recently watching a documentary about the film Easy Rider and Dennis Hopper said something along the lines that it was heroin that put an end to the 1960s, metaphorically speaking. A particularly paranoid individual might draw a connection between the CIA's involvement in drug trafficking in the golden triangle and the heroin problem among the counterculture in the US in 1970.
  11. Context: The Vietnam War
    Pynchon makes only a few direct references to Vietnam, but it is, of course, an important piece of background context.
  12. Context: surfer culture
  13. Context: Gilligan's Island
    Frequently referenced. This will explain everything: https://youtu.be/kTwaJRxWQkU
  14. Minor theme: John Garfield
    Doc's favorite actor. There is a parallel drawn between Garfield's blacklisting and subsequent death and the countersubversive activities of the present day of the story. As is typical of Pynchon, he coyly neglects to mention one of the most relevant of Garfield's films — Force of Evil.
  15. Slang: "Tube"
    Pynchon-speak for television
  16. Pay attention to: Coy Harlingen
    Pynchon introduces new characters on every other page, and it's not always immediately obvious which ones are important and which are just one-offs. The possibly deceased saxophone player Coy Harlingen may at first seem tangential to the main story but he is in fact one of the more important characters.
  17. Pay attention to: Glen Charlock's murder
    A thug who is murdered early in the book. Seems unimportant at first, but the story returns to this event many times.
  18. Questionable sexual activity
    Get used to it. Or at least get used to reading about it.