manual of detection

BY NICO VREELAND

Author: Jedediah Berry

2009, Penguin

Filed under: Mystery, Literary

The Manual of Detection is about Charles Unwin, a clerk at a mysterious detective firm simply called The Agency. Each Agency detective is assigned a clerk to arrange his reports; when Unwin’s detective—the Agency’s most prestigious, a man named Sivart—goes missing, Unwin is promoted to replace him.

Unwin doesn’t want to be a detective and protests repeatedly, then reluctantly follows the clues before him, if only to find Sivart and get his old boring clerk job back.

Manual combines a semi-surreal, hard-boiled world with the soft, posh style of Unwin’s delicate sensibility. The narration can often be obnoxious to listen to, as Unwin minces around among fistfights and gunplay.

But Berry sets the hooks of his mystery carefully and well, and the result is a good mystery that can at times be unbearable, with its weirdness that borders on cloying cutesiness. It’s certainly better than your average detective paperback, but it’s not quite the knock-your-socks-off intellectual thriller it tries to be.

Berry’s strongest talent is as a plotter, setting up braids of actions and layers of motivation. Occasionally, he includes a silly or manipulative plot element, but more often crashes things together in interesting, compelling scenes.

The setting mimics the old-school detective worlds of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. It’s a place with typewriters, phonographs, and fedoras, where all the detectives are men, and all the women wear dresses. It combines that Humphrey Bogart-esque atmosphere with slightly juvenile surrealism—one of Sivart’s old cases is “The Man Who Stole November Twelfth”— and features dreams and memory as its central themes.

We don’t see much of the world besides what’s necessary for the mystery, but Berry’s set-pieces are imaginative and fun, despite their bordering sometimes on silliness.

My major complaint is Berry’s style in Unwin’s narration; it’s packed with wordy, circuitous, dainty phrasings. For example, this description of a murder scene:

A man so throughly versed in the varieties of dispatchment might, then, regard with unusual ease the result of an actual murder, in this case a man whose neck had been bruised by strangulatory measures, tongue emitted as a result of smotheration, eyes bulged almost clear of the skull, result of same.

This kind of writing becomes most annoying during action sequences, when the careful vocabulary robs the narrative of thrills.

By contrast, Berry includes mini-mysteries in the form of Sivart’s old cases, in the form of Sivart’s reports to his clerk. Sivart is a Sam Spade-style detective and, frankly, he’s more fun to read. For instance this:

What I saw was a tall fellow with one very odd mug. It looked like it was made out of clay, all pocked and pale, but his eyes were bright green. He peered into the cab, his breath fogging up the glass. Then he sighed and walked on.

 

I came out in a hurry, meaning to get out of there, and nearly walked straight into a second man. The weird thing, clerk? It was the same guy I’d just seen go in the opposite direction. Turns out this model of goon comes in sets of two.

 

He called to his brother, and they got hold of me quick, then gave me a very professional roughing over.

That style matches the world much better, and makes it frustrating to return to Unwin’s stodgy goose-stepping.

As a character, Unwin also leaves something to be desired. Despite being nearly crippled by a lack of confidence, Unwin moves easily, though bumblingly, through the world. He often literally stumbles across the next key plot point, and easily discovers major clues that the ace detective Sivart never found. This matches the novel’s themes of dreams and memory, the real and the surreal, but sometimes punctures the tension of Berry’s plotting when Unwin can just short-circuit his way to the next key clue.

The mystery itself is compelling, so I’d suggest you read the first chapter before you buy the book, and gauge the extent to which Unwin’s voice gets under your skin. If you don’t mind him, or you like him, read the book. If he irritates you immediately, I’d say give Manual a miss.

Similar books: for similar dreamy weirdness, try Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson, or Ghostwritten by David Mitchell; my favorite literary mystery is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

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