Have you ever read a book that you enjoyed immensely, but found you couldn’t think of what to say about it? I enjoyed every single second I spent with Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, but I did make one big mistake: I lost the momentum. Late in the evening last Monday, the night before we left for our trip, I arrived at the final chapter and decided it was too late and I was too sleepy to continue, so I set the book aside to wait for my return. With any other book, this might have been no problem at all, but for this book, I needed the momentum. I needed to stay with those characters, in their world, right up to the very end. Having put the book down, when I picked it up again to read the ending I wasn’t confused really, so much as anxious and underwhelmed–through no fault of the book, mind you. I don’t think this book has any faults, except perhaps that it may require more than one reading, but to most of us book lovers, re-reading a terrific book is a matter of routine, no?
The Manual of Detection is the story of Mr. Charles Unwin. He works as a clerk at the Agency under one Detective Travis Sivart. Unwin has never met Sivart, but he takes all of Sivart’s case notes and compiles them for the Agency archives, and in this way he’s come to know the man, so when Sivart goes missing, Unwin is the person most likely able to find him. The twist here (among many, many twists) is that even though Unwin is promoted to detective in order to find Sivart (or so we think), he wants only to find Sivart so Sivart can again be the detective and he, Unwin, can go back to being a clerk.
As he searches for Sivart, Unwin learns that he must unravel the cases that he and Sivart worked so hard to compile (for Unwin thinks of these cases as theirs, not just Sivart’s): The Oldest Murdered Man, The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, and The Man Who Stole November Twelfth. Each of these cases and the people involved lead Unwin to the real mystery, one he must solve in order to restore his world as he knows it–as everybody knows it, actually. On the day he’s promoted to detective, Unwin is given a book, The Manual of Detection, and the novel itself is structured in the same manner as the manual, with each of the eighteen chapters– “On Shadowing,” “On Evidence,” “On Corpses,” and so on–offering up information about what Unwin must do to solve the case.
This book is a bit mystery, a bit fantasy, and a whole heapful of wonderful storytelling, and I’m pretty sure that one misses a great deal of what’s really going on upon first reading it. It has the noir aspect of dark detective films of the 1930s and 1940s, dames, a carnival full of misfits, a monolithic Agency whose purpose remains shrouded through even the very end of the book. It seems to use every detective story trope and make it as fresh as though Berry had invented it himself, yet it also seems like a familiar and exciting tale of intrigue. Most importantly, Berry’s writing is crisp and revealing, and the character of Unwin so real and true in his longing to go back to the way things were–there’s no way you can avoid accompanying him on his journey. You won’t want to miss it for the world., and now that I think about it, even though I long to discuss it, I wouldn’t want to spoil it by telling you too much about it.
“The telephone rang. It gleamed black against the stark white sheet and seemed louder for the contrast.”
“In the bed of the Rooks’ steam truck, the ticking of the alarm clocks was the hum of a thousand insects. They jangled and buzzed when the truck went over bumps, and Unwin imagined they were about to burst free in a great tick-tocking swarm.”
“Somewhere amid the hills of clocks, a bell began to ring, a futile attempt to wake some sleeper a mile or more away. To Unwin the sound was a hook in his heart: the world goes to shambles in the corners of night, and we trust a little bell to set it right again. A spring is released, a gear is spun, a clapper is set fluttering, and here is the cup of water you keep at your bedside, here the shoes you will wear to work today. But if a soul and its alarms are parted, one from the other? If the body is left alone to its somnolent watches? When it rises–if it rises–it may not recognize itself, nor any brief day’s trappings. A hat is a snake is a lamp is a child is an insect is a clothesline hung with telephones. That was the world into which Unwin had woken.”
“Maybe he should have told her that he would remain a detective, that she would still be his assistant. Better yet, they could act together as partners: the meticulous dreamer and his somnolent sidekick. Together they would untangle the knots Enoch Hoffman and his villainous cohorts had tied in the city, in its dreams. Their suspects would be disarmed by his clerky demeanor; she would ask the tough questions and do most of the driving. They would track down every error Sivart had committed, re-solve all the great cases, set the record straight. Their reports would be precise, complete, and timely: the envy of every clerk on the fourteenth floor.”
“Miss Burgrave had been right about him: he left matters where no doubt could touch them. But that had been his flaw, to bind mystery so tightly, to obscure his detective’s missteps with perfect files. Somehow Unwin had made false things true.”
You can read Jedediah Berry’s Book Notes for The Manual of Detection at Largehearted Boy.
*image from powells.com