Uncommon Mystery - The Manual of Detection

Sep 4, 2009

Murray, KY – Literary critics can't help comparing Jedediah Berry's debut mystery novel, The Manual of Detection to the works of Franz Kafka, Jorge Louis Borges or Ray Bradberry. One could argue the case for these comparisons simply because the book is difficult to define in its originality. Commentator Michael Cohen addresses this conundrum as he peaks through the pages of this cerebral, absurdist Uncommon Mystery.

Some people like mysteries because, as a genre, these books include predictable features (corpses and detectives, for instance), while they exclude others (vampires and time travel, for instance). But this generic predictability doesn't always hold true in recent mysteries, which sometimes trample the boundaries between mystery and fantasy or between mystery and the post-modern novel. Jedediah Berry's 2009 book, The Manual of Detection, is an example of a mystery that shares features with magical realist or post-modern fiction.

Charles Unwin is an unambitious clerk in an unnamed detective agency whose logo and motto are practically identical with the old Pinkerton Agency's. Unwin files the reports for a detective who goes missing, and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to the missing detective's place. Thus far we might say we are in familiar territory with a dozen Hitchcock thrillers. But not soon strange things begin to happen. Unwin discovers that his detective's most famous cases, The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, The Oldest Murdered Man, and The Man Who Stole November Twelfth, turn out to have been setups that he did not solve at all. Half the city seems to be asleep, part of a plot by the notorious Enoch Hoffman, whose circus specialty was "biloquism," the ability to assume anyone's voice. Sleep turns out to be very important in The Manual of Detection, which is, by the way, the name of a book given to Unwin when he is promoted, though the edition the detectives use is missing an all-important final chapter, on dream detection. The higher-ups in the agency use a technique which enables their operatives to eavesdrop on the dreams of others.

The book is full of allusions to detective fiction: to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and Continental Op, to H.R.F.Keating's bicycle-riding Inspector Ghote and to other mystery classics, but there are also unmistakable references to Jorge Luis Borges, to Franz Kafka, to Lewis Carroll, and to Mikhail Bakhtin's book on the carnival impulse in human culture that is always at war with the conservative element. The villain here is part of a carnival, and the agency is at war with it, but when the agency adopts dream detection, it forms an alliance with the very people it opposes.

A Manual of Detection is a timely allegory about how much power we allow the watchers. In a time when an ex Vice-President makes the claim that in defense of the country, whatever methods work must be used without regard to whether they are right or wrong, this book asks the question whether we can tell the good guys from the bad guys when they use the same methods. I'm not sure you'll like it, but it will make you think.

Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. "The Manual of Detection" by Jedediah Berry was published by The Penguin Press in 2009.