Museums have always totally spooked me. I love them, but there is something so eery about these items of clothing and weaponry that instill irrational fear in me. I am not a believer in ghosts, but I do think objects retain a certain power or remnant of the person who owned, wore, or used them. So, in seeing these objects in the museum, there is something almost sinister lurking because you are only getting a small taste of the actual history.
The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry is the only book that has ever quite made me feel the same way. I have been torn as to whether or not to wait to compose this review, but sometimes I think it’s best to get my thoughts down right away. As a true lover of all things mystery, I had to love this book. There’s no two ways about it. I previewed the first page on Amazon as well:
Lest details be mistaken for clues, note that Mr. Charles Unwin, lifetime resident of this city, rode his bicycle to work every day, even when it was raining. He had contrived a method to keep his umbrella open while pedaling, by hooking the umbrella’s handle around the bicycle’s handlebar. This method made the bicycle less maneuverable and reduced the scope of Unwin’s vision, but if his daily schedule was to accommodate an unofficial trip to Central Terminal for unofficial reasons, then certain risks were to be expected.
Though inconspicuous by nature, as a bicyclist and an umbrellist Unwin was severely evident. Crowds of pedestrians parted before the ringing of his little bell, mothers hugged their children near, and the children gaped at the magnificence of his passing.
Unwin is a true anti-hero – no one really notices him, and he has no overly noble sentiments. He has worked at the Agency for 20 years and sticks to schedules to the exclusion of all else. His umbrella accompanies him everywhere. He is infatuated with a woman in a plaid raincoat who is waiting for someone to get off the train. He first saw her 8 days before the book opens, when Unwin was considering buying a train ticket and leaving behind his life of habit. He wonders for whom she is waiting and how long she will wait. On this day, though, Unwin is interrupted from his watch by Detective Pith of the Agency, is hastily promoted from clerk to detective, and given an assignment before he can even register the interruption. The detective for whom he worked as a clerk has disappeared, and no one knows him better than Unwin, even though the two have only met in the pages of Unwin’s meticulous reports. Confused by this sudden turn of events, he tries to get information from the custodian nearby whom he believes is “in on it,” only to discover the custodian, Mr. Arthur, is working while asleep.
Unwin is so used to his daily routine that he goes directly to his office only to discover his desk has been overtaken by the very woman in the plaid raincoat from the train station. He protests, saying his promotion was a mistake, but as he is not allowed to speak to the overclerk, he is sent to his boss Lamech and discovers he has been murdered. He also discovers that the cases his detective solved have been solved incorrectly, partially because of Unwin’s perfectly written and edited reports. Thus begins a darkly fanciful adventure involving the manual Unwin has been given, a missing chapter from said manual, a dangerous carnival of misfits, and a sleeping, unnamed town with dangerous dreams.
Although this book was quite fun and even mesmerizing at times, drawing the reader in to a funhouse-like dreamworld, it was not altogether successful to me. Much like the objects in the museum, I felt there was much more behind the characters that I was never given. The main character Unwin is not very well developed, so his motivations and the reasoning behind his quirks remain a mystery. The other characters were similarly written, and there were moments in the book where I could not remember who was who. In a book such as this where you really do have to follow each and every word, I don’t like having to stop to think who Detective Screed is and if he is different from Detective Pith and why that matters. In a sequel that is acceptable; indeed, there were times I wondered if there was a mystery prior to this because there seemed to be so much backstory involving the femme fatale, Cleo Greenwood and the missing detective, Sivart. You hear about Sivart’s cases, The Oldest Murdered Man, The Man Who Stole November Twelfth, and The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker. Of course, they are explained throughout the novel, but I would much rather have seen them through the eyes of the detective.
I can see what comparisons this book would draw, but the book that kept coming to mind was Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, which I absolutely, positively could not stand*. This book is a more successful version of the conceptualized detective, but if Berry continues writing with these characters, I do hope he fleshes them out a bit. I really did enjoy the exposition of dream surveillance, which I think added to the feeling that someone was constantly looking over my shoulder. As Frances at Nonsuch Book noted, “If you like noir detective fiction, and like it enough to see the genre submitted to the limits of its flexibility, this book is an absorbing read.” I also really loved the chapter headings, supposedly from Unwin’s copy of The Manual of Detection:
If you are not setting a trap, then you are probably walking into one. It is the mark of the master to do both at once.
A good detective tries to know everything. But a great detective knows just enough to see him through to the end.
All in all, this book was a fun read, and I’ll be curious to pass it on to others to get a different opinion. However, I will be punching my name into this one as it is absolutely beautiful. The picture above is the cover of my book. Just lovely.
*It is literally the only book I have wanted to throw across the room, or the train as I was in Italy traveling at the time. I was traveling with three girlfriends who laughed every time I lifted my head, exasperated, saying, “Detective Blue meets Black who is searching for Lady White who is with Mr. Brown?? Really???” If the windows had opened on the train, my copy of this book would still be in the Italian countryside. As it is, it was left in the cafe at the very next stop.