The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
Reviewed by Karen Meisner
11 March 2009
Borges wrote in praise of the detective story that "it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder" ("The Detective Story," 1978). This notion is given a playful surrealist treatment in The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry. Berry is no stranger to strange fiction; he's been up to his neck in it for years as the assistant editor of Small Beer Press, and his own short stories have been widely published to critical acclaim. Now he's written his first novel, and it is a stylish, exciting debut. In this story, sleuthing is more than a trade; it embodies an orderly approach to life. Mysteries must be solved to separate truth from illusion. Even the criminals seem mainly interested in crime as a mission, an artform, a way of affecting the world. Their leaders are magicians, masters of disguise, illusionists. The conflict between detectives and criminals is a clash of philosophical positions, a metaphysical struggle for dominance.
Our hero is Charles Unwin, mild-mannered file clerk for Detective Travis Sivart. They work at The Agency, a monolith of respectability which protects its city by standing firm against the criminal element. Unwin is a mild, unassuming fellow, never without his umbrella (it is always raining in the city). He excels at organizing and cataloguing files, comfortably contented within his appointed role. But when Detective Sivart goes missing, Unwin is unexpectedly promoted to detective and thrown into the field as an operative. Being thoroughly unsuited to the job, he protests his promotion, but when he comes under suspicion for murder, he must follow the clues in order to figure out what's going on. As he reluctantly begins to ask questions, he discovers that many facts in Detective Sivart's files are false. Soon he is swimming out of his depth, floundering in mysteries. In the thickening plot he finds evidence relating not only to the case at hand, but to secrets that may undermine all he's held true.
Unwin's initial approach to detection is clerklike: mechanically attempting to do what he thinks is expected of him, sorting the facts, bluffing his way through an assortment of odd discoveries. His transformation into an agent begins when he opens a copy of The Manual of Detection—the Agency's bible of the theory and practice of detective work—and reads his first bit of advice (under the header "Mystery, First Tidings of"):
The inexperienced agent, when presented with a few promising leads, will likely feel the urge to follow them as directly as possible. But a mystery is a dark room, and anything could be waiting inside. At this stage of the case, your enemies know more than you know—that is what makes them your enemies. Therefore it is paramount that you proceed slantwise, especially when beginning your work. To do anything else is to turn your pockets inside out, light a lamp over your head, and paste a target on your shirtfront. (p. 52)
Proceeding slantwise is also good advice for readers of this novel. The narrative does not propel us forward, guns blazing, so much as slowly draw us deeper into a mysterious world. Boundaries are blurred between realism and dream-states. The time in which events take place is never specified, though the story sustains a vaguely early-twentieth-century atmosphere throughout, as though tipping its bowler hat to the great mystery novels of that era. And yet the book feels fresh and new, even experimental. It's a book that provokes comparisons to other works of fiction, because it is so difficult to classify without reference points. However, I promised myself I would get through this review without quoting Chesterton, and I will not backslide now. The fact is that The Manual of Detection is a singular creation, confidently constructed in its genre-synthesizing originality.
Despite the book's many charms, I did not warm to the story immediately. The plot quickly becomes complicated, hallucinatory; I found it difficult to follow. (There's now a helpful website that makes it easier to keep track of personnel and other pertinent information.) The mannered, faintly Edwardian prose struck me at first as overly refined; corpses pile up and yet much of the action feels curiously bloodless, more dreamlike than visceral. Like Unwin himself, who "felt he had stumbled into the mystery he was supposed to be solving," I was thrown when the ground started shifting before I'd become quite anchored in the story. It was all a bit dizzying.
In 1924, André Breton wrote in the first Surrealist Manifesto that he sought to expand awareness and find a superior reality by exploring the associations of the unconscious mind. In Berry's novel, a similar notion is employed to practical ends by operatives of the Agency, who are able to spy on suspects within dreams, and see clues the unconscious may reveal about their crimes. As Unwin uses this surveillance method to track clues, the story drifts into the surreal. Curiously, the further Unwin submerges into the dreaming world, the more vivid and solid and awake a person he becomes, the more known to himself. When we first meet him, Unwin is a far cry from the hardboiled model of sleuth; he is a bit of a cipher, meekly shrinking from action, so buttoned-up and cautious that is difficult to get a grip on him. As he struggles toward understanding and his adversary, however, he begins to develop his own instincts, and life floods into the story.
Similarly, as the novel develops, the juxtaposition of precise, dapper prose in a bizarre context becomes hypnotic. The precision of Unwin's perspective gives every scene a realism that is constantly being subverted. The story never veers off into mere weirdness, but stays grounded in the inexorable dream-logic of its world. It reaches and unsettles the reader at an unconscious level. Science-fiction fans like to talk about the "sense of wonder" that results from encountering new concepts and creations, but what I got from this was the delicate sensation that arises when the familiar is made strange: a sense of mystery. Witness this scene when Unwin realizes he's being spied upon:
"He is trying to focus," said the man at the telephone.
Unwin set down the Manual and rose from his seat. He had not misheard: somehow the man with the blond beard was speaking Unwin's thoughts aloud. His hands shook at the thought; he had begun to sweat. The three men at the lunch counter swiveled again to watch Unwin walk to the back of the room and tap the man on the shoulder.
The man with the blond beard looked up, his eyes bulging with violence. "Find another phone," he hissed. "I was here first."
"Were you speaking about me just then?" Unwin asked.
The man said into the receiver, "He wants to know if I was speaking about him just then. He listened and nodded some more, then said to Unwin, "No, I wasn't speaking about you."
Unwin was seized by a terrible panic. (p. 54)
In short, Berry has put together a novel with the perception-challenging impact of a Magritte painting, and every element of the story works together to create that effect. It is Unwin's receptive, uncarved-block quality that allows him to traverse the landscape as a kind of lucid dreamer, sifting through information as it comes to him, without getting too bogged down in what he knows, perhaps falsely, to be true. He continues in his clear-headed, methodical approach even as reality is deconstructed around him. It is entirely right that the story should proceed at the pace it does, because the nature of this book is that it does not bombard the reader with emotion, action, or florid images. The storytelling is the opposite of bombastic; it invites you in to its stylish world, and parcels out its clues sparingly. It's an ambient kind of book. You sink into its atmosphere and let it wash over you, and it does things to your mind.
The surrealist painter Ian Hornak once wrote,
My idea of a perfect surrealist painting is one in which every detail is perfectly realistic, yet filled with a surrealistic, dreamlike mood. And the viewer himself can't understand why that mood exists, because there are no dripping watches or grotesque shapes as reference points. That is what I'm after: that mood which is apart from everyday life, the type of mood that one experiences at very special moments. (Ian Hornak, The 57th Street Review, January 1976)
By this definition, The Manual of Detection succeeds brilliantly as surrealist art. It is also, without doubt, a sincere piece of good old-fashioned detective fiction, in which everything is connected, and readers are offered the satisfaction of a riddle that can be deciphered, of fitting interlocking pieces together into a logical whole. But something larger lingers in the wake of the individual mysteries Unwin investigates: mystery itself, strange and unknowable. Long after I finished reading The Manual of Detection I kept returning to it for the sheer pleasure of resting my eyes on the sentences, and falling back into that transcendent, mysterious mood. Unwin is described at one point as a "meticulous dreamer", and this elegant, intricate, ambitious book leaves me feeling that is a most wonderful thing to be.