The Manual of Detection
by Jedediah Berry
A mystery writer who consults his dreams
when conceiving his books?  A creator of
whodunits who seeks inspiration in Kafka
and Calvino?  Certainly
Jedediah Berry has earned
his place as one of the
usual suspects at
Post-
modern Mystery, even if only
on the strength of his debut
novel,
The Manual of
Detection
.  Berry, a graduate
of Bard College, was born
in Randolph, Virginia but
spent most of  his youth in
Catskill, New York.  
The Manual of Detection
was written as his master’s thesis at
Amherst, and combines elements of fantasy
and surrealism with more traditional
elements of the mystery genre.  When not
writing novels about manuals and also look
like manuals, Berry has served as an editor
for PEN, painted curbs yellow, and made
money paddling around a rich man’s pond.   
No bodies were found.  At least that’s his
story.
ROGUES GALLERY:
JEDEDIAH BERRY
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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Even a quick perusal will tell you that The Manual of
Detection
is genre fiction.  But the more deeply you dig
into the book, the harder it is to decide
which genre.  
The book constantly shifts gears
from detective story to fantasy to
science fiction to adventure tale
and back again to mystery.   
Rarely have I encountered a
novel that so insistently avoids
confronting that most basic of
questions: what kind of book is
this?

The story starts simply enough, and
with all of the familiar trappings of
the mystery tale.  Charles Unwin is
a clerk at the Agency, where he works filing paperwork for
a famous detective.  Yet one day Unwin is surprised to find
that he has been promoted to the status of detective
himself.   He fears that some bureaucratic mistake has
resulted in his elevation to a role for which he feels
unqualified and unprepared.   Yet when he tries to
confront his new boss, with hopes of returning to his old
clerical job, he finds the man murdered in his office.

So far, we are on familiar ground, following the
conventions of the whodunit.  Yet author Jedediah Berry
seems just as eager to discard genre fiction formulas as he
is to embrace them.  For much of the book, Berry appears
more aligned with Kafka and Borges than with Raymond
Chandler and Agatha Christie.   The rules and regulations
which the Agency follows are as opaque and senselessly
bureaucratic as the legal processes in
The Trial, and our
hero often seems less involved in a crime story than in
metaphysical search for first principles. And even when a
crime is presented in stark detail, it is likely to be
something beyond categorization, such as “The Three
Deaths of Colonel Baker,” “The Oldest Murdered Man”
and—my favorite—“The Man Who Stole November the
12th.”  Yes, the thieves here are just as likely to rob a day
from the calendar as pick your pocket.  

Then there are interludes that border on Latin American
magical realism or even the theologically-charged writing
of G.K. Chesterton. I find little satisfaction in reeling of
this list of such contrary names, but I blame the book,
which is far more contrary than any review could be.   If a
novel could suffer from multiple personality disorder it
might end up looking like
The Manual of Detection.

Then again, maybe this is how detective stories behave in
the post-modern era.   Even the cover here sends that
signal.  The book looks like an actual manual of detection,
a textbook that might be assigned at the police academy.   
Yet the story itself also includes a similar manual that plays
an important role in the plot—and the manual in the tale
has the same number of chapters and overall appearance as
the novel. Are you following me?  

An infinite regress?  Certainly Berry is fascinated by
processes that feed on themselves.  A key scene in this
novel takes place in a carnival hall of mirrors, and other
elements of the story have a similar aura of reflexivity.  We
have dreams within dreams, multiple sets of twins, double
agents—almost every aspect of
The Manual of Detection
coexists with its opposite, its negation.  
Mon semblable— mon
frère!

The musings of the protagonists often mimic this yin-and-
yang quality.  “On one side a kind of order, on the other a
kind of disorder,” announces a character at one point in the
novel.  “We need them both. That’s how it’s always been.”

Yet the strangest part of this book is how it eventually
discards all of its post-modern trappings and, in the final
pages, tries to offer rational explanations for its zaniness
and tie up all the loose ends.   If the value system
portrayed in this story insists on the legitimacy of
murkiness and disorder, the author himself eventually
succumbs to the opposite in his plotting, which turns out
to be far more intricate than you will suspect while reading
the first two hundred pages of this work.   

The result is much like the famously obscure closing
scenes of Humphrey Bogart's
noir classic The Big Sleep.  
During the filming of this movie, the director and
screenwriters were so confused about the story line, they
finally sent a telegram to author Raymond Chandler asking
him to clarify one aspect of the plot.   As the novelist
explained to a friend: "They sent me a wire... asking me,
and dammit I didn't know either."   

This didn’t prevent Howard Hawks, like our novelist
Jedediah Berry, from trying to make everything cohere.  
The result in this instance is a fascinating novel that never
falls into a rut.  But I think Berry could have delivered a
masterpiece if he had been more willing to let post-modern
ambiguity to prevail.  


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the
Cool
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Further Clues:

Interview with Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry on Twitter
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Paul Auster
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Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

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The Demolished Man

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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