Written for last weekend’s Left of Cool column.The Manual of Detection was an absolute joy to read – clever, and playful, and beautifully written. I have just discovered (though lurking at his twitter profile) that the author is a fan of Flann O’Brien, and this makes a lot of sense to me – there’s a similarity in that they both have this exuberant, comical voice. And bicycles, obviously.
Books about books are probably the most self-indulgent form of literature there is, and it is probably the duty of all persons with consciences to condemn them for this. It’s not a new idea (and hasn’t been since at least Don Quixote), yet some of us continue to love these books anyway.
Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection is a detective story about detective stories. But it’s many other things as well.
There’s a city (and though no name is mentioned, it’s seems appropriate for the genre to assume that it is New York) that is all seedy bars, thugs, nameless crimes and beautiful, inscrutable women. This is the world of Travis Siwart, a detective who made his reputation with such cases as The Oldest Murdered Man and The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker.
There’s another city, though; the one that is inhabited by Mr Charles Unwin. For twenty years Unwin has been a clerk in an office; he rides a bicycle to work, carries an umbrella, and is entirely preoccupied by routine.
These two men, who have never met, are connected by the huge investigative organisation known as The Agency. The Agency employs Siwart for his skills as a detective, and Unwin to record his cases for posterity. If Siwart’s cases are considered classics of the genre (and they are incredibly intriguing – in one, a villain manages to steal an entire day in November) this is at least in part due to Unwin’s accounts of them. But Siwart goes missing, appearing in Unwin’s dreams to ask his help. An unwilling Unwin is promoted to Siwart’s position and he takes as his first case Siwart’s disappearance, hoping to thus win back his old job and return things to normal. Down the mean streets of Siwart’s New York this unlikely detective must go, then, armed only with his umbrella and a copy of that useful handbook for detectives, The Manual of Detection.
To have a book within a book and to give both books the same title is an act of cruelty to the hapless reviewer, who is forced to explain at every point to which book she refers. But Berry’s real world novel The Manual of Detection (MoD 1) bases a good deal of its structure on the fictional Manual of Detection (MoD 2) – it bears the same number of chapters with the same titles, and each chapter opens with a quote from the same section of the book’s meta-text. Some editions of the book even look physically identical to the manual described.
Yet the novel’s worth does not stem only from this central conceit. It is incredibly funny, for one thing, with much of the humour derived from the complete mismatch between Unwin and the classic noir thriller world he is forced to enter. In one brilliant scene he follows a lead to a bar named The Forty Winks where he must order a drink (he can think of nothing but a root beer) and play a game of poker (he does not know the rules) for information. Yet for all his seeming unfitness for his new position the reader never quite forgets that Unwin has made Siwart – he is the faithful recorder, the Watson to Siwart’s Holmes.
Unwin is seemingly surrounded by people who fall asleep at the drop of a hat – his new assistant, Emily, is among them. The city is full of somnambulists, and the novel slips easily between waking life and dream, and from dreams to dreams within dreams, allowing Berry to indulge in all manner of surreal play.
Books within books, crimes within crimes, dreams within dreams. It’s tempting to see The Manual of Detection as an earlier (2010), cleverer Inception. Yet the high comic tone is what really stuck with me. For all its wild, glorious imagery of carnivals and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, Berry’s book really works because even the image of Mr Unwin on a bicycle clutching his umbrella is elevated into something special.