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The Manual of Detection

1 rating: -3.0
A book by Jedediah Berry

Set in an unnamed city, Berry's ambitious debut reverberates with echoes of Kafka and Paul Auster. Charles Unwin, a clerk who's toiled for years for the Pinkerton-like Agency, has meticulously catalogued the legendary cases of sleuth Travis Sivart. When … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Jedediah Berry
Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
1 review about The Manual of Detection

Blame it on Chabon

  • Mar 23, 2009
I suppose one may lay the blame for this rash of fantasy-mysteries at the doorstep of Michael Chabon, whose The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel (P.S.) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay displayed his bravura writing skills to good effect while blending period piece settings with sometimes fantastic action.

I rated both of those books four stars, for Chabon's high-wiring writing act and the essential groundedness of his plots. Like the strikingly similar The Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes which I also recently read and rated two stars, Berry falls short of Chabon's mark in this genre mashup. Maybe its me. I like the come-on of the concept--old school noir writing (barely identifiable after filtered through modernist distorted lenses) and the conceit of the detective's manual shaping the format of the book--a conceit that Berry carries out in the Table of Contents (which matches that of the Manual of Detection) and early in the book, where the characters' quote from the Manual by page, and flipping back to that page in the book rewards the reader with the delight of finding the same quote, in context.

It's the fantastic elements of the plot that leave me cold. Clerk-turned-detective Charles Unwin (the name itself surely an inside literary reference to the venerable publisher of that name) is of the sincere takes-the-world-at-face-value type who loves and lives by routine and bears not a trace of cynicism. He believes he has mistakenly been promoted to replace the missing superstar of the department Detective Travis Sivart--a red flag which quickly set my teeth on edge. The forwards/backwards name game is not only the oldest canard in the book (Erewhon, anyone?), it is by now best reserved for use by children writing stories for school assignments--or amateur writers in search of a gimmick, neither of whom I would chose to read twice.

Detective Unwin does have some moderately interesting adventures early on, but along the way the story loses some of the internal crosschecks on the framing conceits, and the story kind of unravels and loses excitement--especially when the next plot gimmick is introduced. Turns out some of the characters (both good guys and bad guys) have been sleepwalking through the story--literally! Both sides are able to inhabit the dreams of the sleeping to (apparently, although the fantasy-world laws get fuzzy here and are not fully fleshed out) observe and even control (either directly or through hynpotic suggestion, we aren't really told with any compelling logic) these sleepwalkers, so the good guys turn to "dream detecting" to track the bad guys. When it turns out that this superhero power might have originated with the bad guy and then was either stolen by the good guys or sold to the good guys in a corrupt power pact, well, that's about when I stopped really caring.

Berry started with an interesting premise, framing his book on the concept of the Manual of Detection, with a fun style, reflecting a milder politically-correct noir tradition, but then he foundered in the swamp of fantasy/mystery. Which is why I blame Chabon. Kids, just because it looks good when he does it, doesn't mean you should try this at home!

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