Chris's Reviews > The Manual of Detection

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
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's review
Mar 06, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: weird-fiction

Full disclosure: I've never written a review of a book by someone I know (hi Jeb!)

I hate reading reviews of analogy ("If Voxtrot teamed up with Paul Simon, they'd have formed Vampire Weekend!") but have a weakness for writing them. So if I was asked to write a short blurb for the back of the paper-back edition, I might say that if Kafka wrote the movie Chinatown, replacing J.J. Gittes with Sam Lowrie from "Brazil," it might read like "The Manual of Detection."

Of course, the problem with those sort of review is they never actually encapsulate a work, and "manual does a good job of skirting easy categorization. It's gum-shoe noir, only not as brutal or serious. It's weird-fiction, but not nearly as far along the "weird" spectrum as one might expect from an author who is an assistant editor at Small Beer Press. There's a bit of Gorey's phantasmagoria, but with a strong current of paranoia and social commentary.

Berry does a great job creating both an engaging plot and tone from the very start. Plot wise, the story manages to riff off all the classics aspects of the noir genre without sounding either derivative or overly self-conscious, and manages to throw in enough twists to keep you on your toes without coming across as manipulative. The setting is a wonderfully dark take on noir-era New York reflected through a warped mirror -- everyone wears hats and trench-coats in the never-ending rain, as the reluctant detective Unwin traces clues through fun-house versions of the Museum of Natural History, Central Park, Grand Central Station, an crumbling carnival, and eventually dreams.

One thing I really liked about "Manual" is that although there is certainly a dark tone to the book, it retains the light, entertaining feel of genre fiction, which is a nice change from most weird-fic, which tends to skew towards heavy and disturbingly violent. I love both Mieville and Lake, but it was great to read a book that I just enjoyed the entire time without ever shuddering and feeling slightly nauseated.

"Manual" got mentioned in both the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker last week, and while both were very positive, they both seemed to get this book strangely wrong. The Book Review said the end tried to hard to set up the sequel, which I didn't see at all -- I felt there was merely regeneration, a return of essential balance between forces, rather than a tease at a sequel (since I can, for once actually ask the author -- Jeb, what did you have in mind). Then The New Yorker was "disappointed when the plot turned out to be a 9/11 analogy," which is just crazy. The plot does have a dark paranoia and distrust of authority that is relevant in our post 9/11 Patriot Act world, but paranoia and distrust of authority is hardly specific enough to make it a "9/11 analogy."

I was going to tell everyone to read this book because I knew Jed back in college, but its nice to know I can tell everyone to read the book because I think its great.

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message 1: by Jedediah (new)

Jedediah Thanks for this thoughtful review, Chris. You've got me thinking now about a "weird scale" for fiction and how something like that might work...

I haven't posted responses over here before, but then I can't very well ignore your direct question! I am confused, though -- I read over the review in the Times, and I don't see the part you're referring to. Was it some it other review that suggested I was setting up a sequel?

In any case, it's a question I'm happy to address. [mild spoilers ahead:] I like what you've described as "a return of essential balance between forces," which is similar to how I thought of the end of the book. I'd meant to portray a cycle returned to its starting point, with new players filling old roles, and a vast and important game (long stalled) underway again. If this sounds a bit elaborate, it's because it has more to do with the mythical underpinnings of the story than with the mystery plot layered over it. And an ending like that, to work at all, has to feel open-ended: the characters are participating in something greater than themselves, something which has been going on for a very long time, and which is understood to be ongoing.

I can see how that degree of openness might feel like groundwork for a sequel, especially in a genre which has a penchant for serialization, but it wasn't my intention. I had my hands full just bringing this story to its conclusion; I didn't have room to prepare for a follow-up.

Which isn't to say I can't imagine returning to some of these characters in the future. If I did, though, it would be in a very different kind of book, set in a world with very different troubles, and probably not a mystery novel at all.

Chris Huh -- you're right, it's not in Stasio's mention in tNYTBR. Maybe it was in the New Yorker, since they also saw the 9/11 "allegory." I'll try to find my source, since I know I didn't make it up . . .

Your explanation was what I got out of the book, for what that's worth. I liked how the yin-yang balance of agency/carnival order/chaos played out in a mystery genre, which tends to skew good/bad, though noir does have more shades of gray than black and white. It was nice to realize it wasn't as simple as "stop the bad-guy" or even the 180 twist of "stop the bad good-guy," but stop the bad guy and good guy who have distorted the balance.

I'm glad to hear there isn't a direct sequel in the works, either; I loved the characters and world, but with the balance returned, the story seemed very complete. A simple sequel would almost have to simply retell the same story - and who wants to be David Eddings?

Chris Mystery solved, and I was only sort of crazy -- I somehow lifted the "baiting a sequel" bit from a review here on goodreads, forgot I read the review on this site, so attributed it to the only two I remembered reading. Nice to know that the professionals didn't read the sequel into it . . .

Kyle a 9/11 allegory? What book did that person read? And I, too, have heard the setting up a sequel bit, which I did not feel even once.

I saw your review of this book, Chris, and agreed whole-heartedly. This book was shelved in the "Mystery" section at my local bookstore, but I picked it up, saw the cover, read the first page, and decided it must be had. And I loved it.

I especially agree with your mention of returning to stasis at the end. The carnival folk deliver a big chaotic blow and roll off, the scales balanced again, but with a new assembly of names.

Anyway. Cheers.

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