I wouldn’t normally dwell on the book-as-object, but I have to say that The Manual of Detection is one of the most attractive volumes that I’ve seen in quite some time. You can’t see from the picture, but it has a laminate cover (i.e. the image is printed directly on to the cover, with no dust-jacket); and the whole package gives the impression of a book that has been designed with great care and attention. Furthermore, it has been made to resemble the fictional Manual of Detection described in the novel; opening the book is an invitation to step into its own unique world.
And the text itself makes good on that invitation; what strikes me most about The Manual of Detection is the way that Jedediah Berry has woven his fictional world together. The setting is an unnamed city in which a thousand noir stories have taken place, crimes solved by the behatted, cigar-chomping detectives of the Agency, the greatest of whom is Travis T. Sivart. Now Sivart has gone missing, and his clerk, Charles Unwin, has been promoted in his stead. Convinced that this is an error, Unwin goes upstairs to the office of Edward Lamech, Sivart’s ‘watcher’ and the author of the memo apparently granting this promotion — only to find Lamech’s dead body sitting behind the desk. Unwin sets out to find Sivart; and, of course, it all gets more complicated from there…
Berry’s creation is fascinating, and his novel transporting in the truest sense, in that it takes one out of the real world, and into a sideways reality that convinces as a functioning world within the covers of the book, even as one acknowledges that it couldn’t function if it actually existed. The Agency itself is a huge, sprawling organisation whose absurd bureaucracy is a delight to imagine: the different categories of staff are so segregated that there are underclerks in the archive who don’t even know what a detective is. And consider the thoughts it engenders in Unwin as he makes his way to Lamech’s office:
Imagine the report he would have to write to explain his actions: the addenda and codicils, the footnotes, the footnotes to footnotes. The more Unwin fed that report, the greater would grow its demands, until stacks of paper massed into walls, corridors: a devouring labyrinth with Unwin at its center, spools of exhausted typewriter ribbon piled all around.
(Incidentally — or perhaps not — I think that quotation also demonstrates Berry’s considerable flair for writing prose.)
The Manual of Detection is set in a world where detectives’ cases get pulpish nicknames like ‘The Oldest Murdered Man’ or ‘The Man Who Stole November Twelfth’, and sound equally outlandish in synopsis; where bizarre things happen, such as Charles Unwin encountering a man who is apparently relaying Unwin’s every move down the telephone, before the following exchange takes place:
“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.”
Yet all has a perfectly rational explanation — rational within the terms of the novel, anyway. There’s less fantastication than that comment might suggest, but a little goes a long way in this case. I’m being deliberately vague about the details, because so much of the joy of reading The Manual of Detection lies in the discovery of what happens. But I will say that the final third takes a different tack as the threads of story come together; and I feel it sits quite awkwardly with the rest (then again, I did struggle to follow the plot a bit at this point, so it could just be that).
Criticisms aside, though, what I’ll take away from The Manual of Detection is the singular experience of reading it, its distinctive feel and atmosphere — and I’ll be mightily intrigued to see what Jedediah Berry does next.