The Manual of Detection

September 3, 2017


I've been doing a lot of revisiting old favorites while counting down the days until my novel George & LIzzie comes out, and rereading Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection (Penguin, 2009) was a great pleasure. It's one of those peculiar and intriguing novels that are showing up with rather more frequency these days than they used to be. Describing it isn't easy. Berry’s novel is neither this nor that: the plot is not straightforward (to say the least); the setting is surreal yet oddly familiar, the characters are types (detective, girl Friday, villain) but so individualized that they’re difficult to forget. When you’re talking about books like Berry’s, you find yourself mostly resorting to making comparisons with better-known titles and authors. It’s also true that with books that push against the boundaries of any particular genre (be it literary fiction, fantasy, or mysteries), readers tend to either love them or hate them. I certainly don’t love them all, but I sure enjoyed this one, enormously, both times I've read it. Berry’s novel is an amalgam of all of the above – literary fiction, fantasy, and mystery; its pages echo with tributes to the writing of Borges, of Calvino, of some of Paul Auster’s works, and of Kafka. And yet, for all it may resemble, The Manual of Detection is entirely original. In an unknown, somewhat eerie city, in a building known only (and ominously) as The Agency, Charles Unwin, a finicky, committed-to-following-his-daily-routine man, works for a famous detective named Sivart, writing up Sivart’s cases from the notes he’s made. Then one day everything is thrown into disarray – Watcher Lamech, Sivart’s boss, is murdered, Sivart has disappeared, and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to detective from his lowly position as a clerk (a job he looks forward to every day). The only way he can get his beloved clerkship back is to find Sivart, and while trying to do so, Unwin uncovers the existence of a dastardly plot to take over the world by an organization bent on infiltrating people’s dreams. Can a simple clerk find his famous boss, prevent the worst from taking place, and retain his integrity and what sanity he has? Into a mix that includes a cast of truly evil thugs, an attractive assistant with more than assisting on her mind, a puzzling woman in a plaid coat, and a ventriloquist who’s up to no good (among other one-of-a-kind characters), there’s also a carnival that no longer travels and many thousands of stolen alarm clocks. Try The Manual of Detection. It’s great fun and a marvelous achievement.

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