Sep 26, 2009

Monkey droppings - The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

On today's menu: hard-boiled noir, served with heavy dollops of magical realism.

by Jedediah Berry
Objects have memory, too. The doorknob remembers who turned it, the telephone who answered it. The gun remembers when it was last fired, and by whom. It is for the detective to learn the language of these things, so that he might hear them when they have something to say.
From chapter two of The Manual of Detection, "On Evidence."
Like pretty much everyone, I enjoy a good mystery novel. I rather like being led about by an intrepid sort of chap, all the while pulling the pieces and clues together on my own. As long as the mystery plays by the rules and doesn't cheat, I'm there all the way.

But I also love novels that play with my sense of reality, that distort the edges of my understanding to unearth new truths, or old truths revealed in a new light, such as in Tim Davys' weird and often wonderful Amberville. So, by way of deduction, I should love The Manual of Detection.

And so I do.

Jedediah Berry, in his first novel - I kind of hate it when a debut novel is this good, call it professional jealousy - puts together an intricate, bizarre, and dreamlike noir of a mystery, using all the classic tenets of the private detective genre while invigorating them with healthy doses of the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges. Part Dashiell Hammett, part Franz Kafka's The Trial, The Manual of Detection is familiar yet thrillingly original.

Charles Unwin ('unwin' = 'lose'?) is a clerk in an unnamed city, working for a vast detective agency. His sole job is to transcribe and organize the notes of Detective Travis Sivart, which he has been doing for some fourteen years. However, Unwin's fairly uneventful life is about to be transformed; Sivart has gone missing, and Unwin is unexpectedly promoted to the rank of detective. All he is provided is a badge, a gun, and a copy of every detective's most important tool, The Manual of Detection. He also has an odd dream in which Sivart, naked in Unwin's bathtub, doles out some less-than-transparent advice on what is happening. And quite suddenly, the city is laden with sleepwalkers, and someone is stealing all the alarm clocks.

Soon, the familiar tropes of the noir detective make themselves more known to Unwin. There's Cleopatra Greenwood, the femme fatale who continually crossed swords with Sivart; Detectives Peake, Pith, and Crabtree, three fellow P.I.s who may or may not be against Unwin; and finally, the biloquist Enoch Hoffman, Sivart's nemesis and known as being the mastermind behind such cases as 'The Man Who Stole November Twelfth' and 'The Oldest Murdered Man.' And of course, there are henchmen; Jasper and Josiah Rook, brothers once-conjoined at the foot who are described thusly: "They lost something. I don't know what to call it. 'Conscience' isn't quite the word. Some people do cruel things, but the Rooks are cruelty itself, monsters under the moon. And they never sleep."

Berry expertly weaves together these strands of plot (plus a few others) with an assurance that belies his first-time novelist status. His world is that of the classic noirs of the 1950s, alongside a vision of a gothic city (caught in a perpetual rainstorm) straight out of Terry Gilliam's visionary film Brazil. When one character comments to the deceptively competent Unwin, "I do know a thing or two about detectives, Mr. Unwin. I know that with a few words you could have won my heart. But you're one of the noble ones, aren't you?" you can feel the ghosts of Hammett and Raymond Chandler urging Berry on. There is also a hint of steampunk, although far less than Michael Moorcock's glowing review would have you believe.
But Berry is after more than the mystery itself, creating a world of dreams and illusions that pushes his noir in new directions. To call elements of the novel surreal is to damn it with faint praise, because while Unwin's puzzle takes a corner into the fantastic, there are still rules at play. That Unwin doesn't understand them does not mean they don't exist, or play fair. And as he learns the secrets behind the mysteries of Sivart, he uncovers a dark, magical plane where the purpose behind such mysteries becomes clear.

"To the modern detective, truth is rarely its own reward; usually it is its own punishment. And if you cannot track mystery to the back of its ugly cave, then be content to stand at the edge of the dark and call it by name." I can honestly say I've read very few mysteries as intricate and complex as The Manual of Detection. It demands a second and third reading, and it'll get it from me.



Nick DiChario said...

Okay, once you start dropping those kinds of names, it's a must read for me.

Corey Redekop said...

It's a good one, Nick.

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