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Book Review: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

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Even a quick perusal will tell you that The Manual of Detection is genre fiction. But the more deeply you dig into the book, the harder it is to decide which genre. The book constantly shifts gears from detective story to fantasy to science fiction to adventure tale and back again to mystery. Rarely have I encountered a novel that so insistently avoids confronting that most basic of questions: what kind of book is this?

The story starts simply enough, and with all of the familiar trappings of the mystery tale. Charles Unwin is a clerk at the Agency, where he works filing paperwork for a famous detective. Yet one day Unwin is surprised to find that he has been promoted to the status of detective himself. He fears that some bureaucratic mistake has resulted in his elevation to a role for which he feels unqualified and unprepared. Yet when he tries to confront his new boss, with hopes of returning to his old clerical job, he finds the man murdered in his office.

So far, we are on familiar ground, following the conventions of the whodunit. Yet author Jedediah Berry seems just as eager to discard genre fiction formulas as he is to embrace them. For much of the book, Berry appears more aligned with Kafka and Borges than with Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. The rules and regulations which the Agency follows are as opaque and senselessly bureaucratic as the legal processes in The Trial, and our hero often seems less involved in a crime story than in metaphysical search for first principles. And even when a crime is presented in stark detail, it is likely to be something beyond categorization, such as “The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker,” “The Oldest Murdered Man” and—my favorite—“the Man Who Stole November the 12th.” Yes, the thieves here are just as likely to rob a day from the calendar as pick your pocket.

Then there are interludes that border on Latin American magical realism or even the theologically-charged writing of G.K. Chesterton. I find little satisfaction in reeling of this list of such contrary names, but I blame the book, which is far more contrary than any review could be. If a novel could suffer from multiple personality disorder it might end up looking like The Manual of Detection.

Then again, maybe this is how detective stories behave in the post-modern era. Even the cover here sends that signal. The book looks like an actual manual of detection, a textbook that might be assigned at the police academy. Yet the story itself also includes a similar manual that plays an important role in the plot—and the manual in the tale has the same number of chapters and overall appearance as the novel. Are you following me?

An infinite regress? Certainly Berry is fascinated by processes that feed on themselves. A key scene in this novel takes place in a carnival hall of mirrors, and other elements of the story have a similar aura of reflexivity. We have dreams within dreams, multiple sets of twins, double agents—almost every aspect of The Manual of Detection coexists with its opposite, its negation. Mon semblable— mon frère!

The musings of the protagonists often mimic this yin-and-yang quality. “On one side a kind of order, on the other a kind of disorder,” announces a character at one point in the novel. “We need them both. That’s how it’s always been.”

Yet the strangest part of this book is how it eventually discards all of its post-modern trappings and, in the final pages, tries to offer rational explanations for its zaniness and tie up all the loose ends. If the value system portrayed in this story insists on the legitimacy of murkiness and disorder, the author himself eventually succumbs to the opposite in his plotting, which turns out to be far more intricate than you will suspect while reading the first two hundred pages of this work.

The result is much like the famously obscure closing scenes of Bogart’s The Big Sleep. During the filming of this movie, the director and screenwriters were so confused about the story line, they finally sent a telegram to author Raymond Chandler asking him to clarify one aspect of the plot. As the novelist explained to a friend: "They sent me a wire… asking me, and dammit I didn't know either."

This didn’t prevent Howard Hawks, like our novelist Jedediah Berry, from trying to make everything cohere. The result in this instance is a fascinating novel that never falls into a rut. But I think Berry could have delivered a masterpiece if he had been more willing to let post-modern ambiguity to prevail.

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