Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection wears its influences on its sleeve--or maybe on every inch of its black suit and fedora. There are labyrinthine archives, a confused man in an unrelentingly mysterious city and people who have a lot more of the answers than us or the main character. To call the book Kafkaesque or Borgesian would be painfully obvious, but it's also true. There's also strains of Saramago (especially All the Names), a bit of Dash Hammett and in the acknowledgments Berry gives a shout out to William Weaver--the main translator of Calvino and Eco . Berry combines the noir aesthetic and the confused loneliness of someone like Joseph K. into a mystery novel that's addictively mysterious and thoroughly satisfying.

In a nameless, rainy city Charles Unwin is a clerk for The Agency. Endlessly bureaucratic and purposefully, elusively intimidating, The Agency prides itself on towering (literally and morally) over the people; there might be a police force in this city, but if so they seem to stay out of The Agency's way. Unwin is a clerk for Detective Travis Sivart who's generally considered the agency badass and has solved some of their most high profile cases.

But suddenly, Unwin is promoted to detective and realizes that Sivart has gone missing. He then finds a dead body, is given an assistant who's more than a little narcoleptic and is soon on the run from both Agency goons (who think he's a murderer) and criminal goons (who want to murder him). Unwin is determined to find Sivart, clear up his promotion (which he assumes to be a mistake) and be back at his clerk's desk before day's end. Along the way, Unwin encounters the remnants of an old carnival which has become the center of criminal activity in the city. Carnival residents include an evil ventriloquist, a beautiful torch singer who has a unique power over the men in her life and a chilling set of ex-conjoined twins who don't need to sleep and are always in a very bad mood.

Unwin isn't interested in being a detective, as Berry describes him, "He was tenacious in his way, insightful when he needed to be--but only into things already written down." Action is not his specialty. Guiding Unwin through his case is the eponymous "Manual of Detection"; a mysterious little book that he keeps meaning to read, but can't quite find the time to get through. Each chapter of Berry's novel has a quick excerpt from the Manual just under the chapter headings. These epigrams help set the menacing, yet clever tone of the whole novel: "At this stage of the case, your enemies know more than you know--this is what makes them your enemies."

The motto of The Agency is "never sleeping," which is meant to be ironic because it seems that everyone in the novel is always sleeping. From the dozey assistant, to the zombielike custodian who keeps appearing where you don't expect a man with a mop to be, to, well pretty much everyone. And this line between sleeping and waking, and between dreaming and real life plays into one of the clever themes of the book. Berry's novel seeks to explore the differences between multiple binaries: the Agency and the Criminal, the carnival and the city, clerk/assistant and detective/watcher. The differences between these "polar" opposites proves to be as thin as a maple leaf, and ephemeral as a dream. One character sums up the main conflict of the novel this way: "'The sleeping king and the madman at the games,' she said. 'On the one side a kind of order, on the other a kind of disorder. We need them both. That's how it's always been."

This tension, more than the plot, is what kept my attention. I was at least halfway through the book before I realized that I didn't know what the central crime was. Unwin is trying to solve something, but he doesn't know what. There is a plot here, there is a grand scheme, but the details of that plot are not the driving force of the book, and it's when the "mystery" needs to be cleared up that the novel loses some of its steam. The details of the big plan by the bad guy are spelled out in a relatively few number of pages at the very end of the book. Solving the mystery proves to be not as satisfying as Unwin's journey towards the truth.

One of the important functions of the first wave of detective fiction (approximately AC Doyle to Agatha Christie) is to present an orderly world (a country manor) thrown into disorder (a murder), but then rebuilt by a dedicated and morally superior detective (Sherlock Holmes). Unwin's character is clearly modeled after these detectives, but his city is too corrupted to be put back together again in. By the end of the novel the "mystery" is solved, but order remains elusive and in many ways everything is more confused than it was before.

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