The Manual of Detection
by Jedediah Berry
Reviewed by Nick Bredie
Looking at the stacks of mystery titles in the airport, a friend of mine said, "I think they’ve solved 'em all." I couldn’t help but think that he was right, in some visceral way; no matter how convoluted the crime, no matter how unlikely the twist, few readers will be genuinely surprised by the mystery's solution. Mystery writers, understanding this, seem to adopt one of three approaches. First: rely on the pleasure of formula and familiarity, presenting a heroic detective doggedly searching for the novel's final page. Second: displace the genre's conventions, placing the sleuth in unusual settings or situations. Third: treat the genre as literature of exhaustion, the detective's drive for truth being no match for the problem of existence. In his debut novel, The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry deftly samples all three of these approaches to a charming, if slightly cartoonish, effect.
Set in a tailor-made world of abandoned carnivals and constant rain, The Manual of Detection takes its name from a guidebook issued to detectives belonging to an organization simply known as "The Agency." The reader is treated to fortune cookie bits of this text at the beginning of each chapter, reflecting the chapter’s contents like a Confucian gloss. For example, its advice on leads: "follow them lest they follow you." As the reader is treated to the insights of the manual, so is Charles Unwin, a clerk for the Agency, depicted as a sort of bureaucratic Dr. Watson. At the outset of the novel Unwin loses his Holmes, a slick detective named Sivert; handed a promotion and a copy of the eponymous manual, Unwin sets off to do that which he has up until now only read about: solve a mystery. Following the kind of hermetic logic that guides the novel, the mystery is, of course, that of the Agency's own missing detective.
Unwin is thus cast into a world he knows only as its indexer. For instance, people: the buxom secretary, the femme fatal, the voice-imitating criminal mastermind, the twin thugs. Places: the Agency, the museum, the abandoned mansion turned nightclub, the Forty Winks motel. And most importantly, cases, titled as if they were an Agatha Christie table of contents: The Oldest Murdered Man, The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, and most notably The Man Who Stole November Twelfth. Subtended by these elements, the novel's action proceeds like a game of Clue in reverse. As Unwin encounters these people and visits these places, he only finds that the purported solutions Sivert offered to these cases were false; each step forward in the finding of the detective proliferates criminal possibilities rather than narrowing them. Meanwhile, Unwin's dream-like city is increasingly populated with somnambulists, throwing their alarm clocks into the sea.
Many recent literary detective novels on this side of the Atlantic seem to take their cues from the hardboiled arm of the genre. Berry, on the other hand, seems to be taking his cues from G.K. Chesterton. As is the case in the hallucinatory classic The Man Who Was Thursday, the mystery Unwin unfurls is more metaphysical than physical; the forces at work behind the mystery are not so much criminal, political, or occult, but those of order and chaos writ large. At stake in finding the missing detective is the possibility of truth, rather than the answers behind who pulled off a bank robbery or political plot.
Paradoxically, in raising the stakes to such heights, the world Berry constructs becomes dreamlike and distant. In the words of a dream-reading giantess, the novel's sibyl: "On one side a kind of order, on the other a kind of disorder. We need them both. That's how it's always been… Now the Agency oversteps its bounds while the carnival rots in the rain." And while dreams are a major concern of the novel--never waking being a threat facing the imaginary city--one can't help but think that the people and places of The Manual of Detection have their origin in dream, and would be equally at home there. The threat of nightmarish chaos remains at a carnivalesque level, so the novel's pleasure resides in Berry's imaginative and playful plotting, rather than in perceived menace. In the end The Manual of Detection unravels itself like a trick scarf, showing the reader each colorful strand, only to weave itself back together more perfectly than before.
Nick Bredie is an occasional contributor to Rain Taxi.