In addition to being a coming-of-age novel, I Am the Cheese also follows the path of an "orphan" quest, similar to Hansel and Gretel,The Catcher in the Rye, or Rule of the Bone. In the orphan quest, a child, whose parents loom heavily in the background, seeks to find himself on the road and often wants to find his parents. Cormier reverses the typical orphan structure, as Adam discovers he is an orphan only at the end of the novel, rather than at the beginning, where the protagonist's orphanage is usually established. In most orphan quests, the orphan runs across several surrogate parental figures. Sometimes these are not always the optimal parental replacements, and the orphan is lucky if he can find even one wise and nurturing elder. Adam charts much of his progression to an orphanage through the popular children's song "The Farmer in the Dell." At first, we learn that this was the Farmer family's theme song of sorts and Adam sings it to remind himself of better times. Indeed, the repetitive structure of the song, which links cheerful verses like "The farmer takes a wife" and "The wife takes a child," suggests a happy, unified family. Yet Adam never sings too far in the song, and the final verses, unknown to most people, remain off limits. Only at the end do we discover the meaning of the novel's title. "The rat takes the cheese" is the second-to-last verse and "The cheese stands alone" is the final one. Adam states that he is the cheese. All of the trappings of family from the song have disappeared until finally, the cheese stands alone. Adam is alone, and he is an orphan in all senses: he has lost his mind, has lost his parents, and has lost himself.
Cormier updates yet another literary convention, the mystery and detective novel. I Am the Cheese is a thrilling, suspenseful mystery, as well as an emotional story, because the detective is searching for clues about himself. Adam's intimacy with the case instills new energy and emotional suspense into clichéd scenes, such as Adam's digging through his father's desk for documents or eavesdropping on his mother's phone conversation. Cormier's various narrative strategies—switching the story between Adam's first person account of his bike trip, his dialogue-only conversations with Brint, and especially the third-person memories—highlight Adam's emotional responses to the factual discoveries. Cormier eloquently describes 14-year-old Adam's feelings when he overhears his mother's phone conversation, for instance, and his dialogue with Brint reveals his motivations and attitudes. At the end of book, we learn that Adam's journey is a fabrication. The journey is also the one time Adam is allowed to tell a story in the first-person. Adam's bike trip to Rutterburg is really a trip around his hospital grounds, and his fantasy is the product of an "unreliable narrator," another staple in mystery novels. The unreliable narrator retells factual information incorrectly, sometimes on purpose. Usually the reader can untangle what is true and what is not, as we can in I Am the Cheese.