Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Manual of Detection

The Manual of Detection
Jedediah Berry
The Penguin Press NY
278 pages
Released 2009
ISBN 978-1-59420-211-7

What would happen if Franz Kafka wrote The Maltese Falcon, or The Big Sleep? We might have a story about a fastidious clerk working in a monolithic detective agency who is unexpectedly promoted to detective. He might set out to find the detective he clerks for, which of course would plunge him into the world of colorful and dangerous characters from the cases his detective is notorious for solving. This is the story Jedediah Berry tells in The Manual of Detection, a deliciously written novel set in a nameless city. Charles Unwin, with his bicycle and umbrella, navigates the rain-soaked dreamscape, where sleepwalkers throttle the streets. Where femmes, fatale and otherwise, deepen the mystery. Where carnival mirrors reflect the true state of things.

The main character, Charles Unwin, is a clerk, situated in the middle of the Agency. He is the clerk of the "detective's detective", Travis A. Sivart. Unwin has been, for the last several mornings, going to the train station to wait for the woman in the plaid coat and gray cap. We follow Unwin in his determination to straighten out what appears to be a mistake: his promotion to detective.

I love Unwin. He is precise where I am messy, determined where I am lax. But he is not severe. My favorite bit of revelation was his desire to slide across the floor in his stockinged feet. I had an image of Tom Cruise for a moment, but in a jacket and tie and trilby, carrying an umbrella with his toast.

While the award-winning novel is Berry’s first, written for his MFA thesis at Amherst College, his body of short work has not gone unnoticed. Stories have appeared in collections as diverse as The Chicago Review, Fairy Tale Review, La Petite Zine and Conjunctions. He is also an editor at Small Beer Books, an independent publishing house that took him in as an intern early in his writing career.

Berry’s narration flows like the rain out of the fountains in the continuous downpour. Backstory reads like present action. Sivart speaks in first person, as a proper hard-boiled detective should. Descriptions and elephants repeat as mirrors of memory.

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