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
modern Mystery, even if only
on the strength of his debut
The Manual of
.  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
Essay 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
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
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 Hawk, 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 Love Songs: The Hidden
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Further Clues:

Interview with Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry on Twitter
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

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

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