The Manual of Detection
The Manual of Detection. Jedediah Berry. New York: Penguin Press, 2009, hardback, 278 pages, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-594-20211-7.
Reviewed by David Emerson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:6 (#335) in June 2010.]
This is a wonderful book, in both senses of the word — the current sense (great, terrific, fabulous) and the original sense (full of wonders). The wonders include an army of sleepwalkers, a barge loaded with clocks, phonograph records that play nothing but rustling noises, the theft of an entire day, and many more I can’t tell you without giving too much away. Even though the library shelved it under “Mystery,” it definitely qualifies as fantasy, but I can’t tell you why; you’ll just have to trust me.
First-time novelist Jedediah Berry has taken the clichés of the hard-boiled detective story and imbued them with a mythic quality. You’ve got the cynical, wise-cracking detective, the loyal assistant, the femme fatale (two of them, actually), the unexpected corpse, the criminal mastermind, the gritty dark streets of the city in the rain, the brooding mansion, the revelation of secrets, the showdown with the villain, even a nightclub scene. But each is taken to its extreme, and then past it into the realm of archetype.
The setting is a generic big city. Charles Unwin is a meticulous clerk working for a large agency whose employees are locked into rigidly stratified roles. Quite by chance one day, his usual routine is interrupted by a dropped umbrella, a strange dream, and a memo promoting him to detective. Believing the latter to be some kind of mistake, Unwin spends a good chunk of the novel trying to correct it. He becomes the most unlikely of detectives, fumbling around completely out of his element, trying to imagine what a “real” detective would do, constantly afraid he’ll be exposed as a fraud and demoted to under-clerk. But in the process, he discovers much more than he ever imagined, beyond the mysteries of the missing detective, the murdered watcher, the beautiful client with an assumed name, and the startling crime being planned and executed while the city sleeps. He discovers astonishing secrets about the very nature of his world.
I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that a lot of the action of the story takes place in the mind – in memories and dreams. The prose style manages to evoke a state somewhere between waking and dreaming, so that at times the reader is never quite sure if the story will really stop upon closing the book. Think of Walter Mitty starring in a Raymond Chandler story directed by David Lynch from a screenplay by René Magritte, and that comes close to what this novel is like. It’s an unusual book, delightful, intriguing, trippy, and, as I said, wonder-full.