One of the dissatisfying things about a lot of classic crime fiction is that when it comes to the anagnorisis, we really only have the detective’s – and the author’s – word for who, how and whydunnit. In many cases it would take only a few tweaks here and there to turn any of the red herrings into the solution, and for Sherlock Holmes’s or Hercule Poirot’s ingenious but ultimately arbitrary explanation to be exposed as just another false trail. One of the many pleasing things about Jedediah Berry’s first novel is that the plot hinges on a famous detective’s most celebrated cases having been solved incorrectly.
The hero of The Manual of Detection is Charles Unwin, a clerk at a detective agency, known only as ‘the Agency’, which occupies all 46 floors of the tallest building in an unnamed city that in some ways is quite like New York, only smaller (the Empire State Building has 102 storeys), and in other ways isn’t like New York at all: it has no financial district, for one thing; instead, at the southern end of the city is a derelict port. It’s an eerily dreamlike world, at once strange and familiar. ‘In the maze of old streets that predated the gridding of the city, he passed timbered warehouses and old market squares cluttered with the refuse of industry. Machines – the purpose of which he could not guess – rusted in red streaks over the cobblestone.’ The year in which the novel is set is indeterminate, too, though the clothes and gadgets suggest some time, as with all the best noir, in the first half of the 20th century: everyone wears a hat, and phonograph records, typewriters, trains, taxis and telephones are the height of technology.
It’s always noirishly raining, so Unwin has worked out a way to ride his bicycle with his open umbrella hooked over the handlebars, though this doesn’t stop his shoes from filling up with water (his socks are permanently soaked). Unwin, as his name implies, is a bit of a loser, a long way from such wisecracking tough guys as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Unlike them, he’s a stickler for the rules, absurdly anxious about being caught making ‘an unofficial trip to Central Terminal’ – which in some ways is quite like Grand Central Station – ‘for unofficial reasons’ on his way into the office. But then the detective whose clerk he is, Travis T. Sivart, isn’t exactly like Spade or Marlowe either. (His name, as well as being a palindrome, is a homophone for ‘travesties of art’.) Sivart doesn’t work alone out of a small office, or have an ambiguous relationship with the law. He’s just one among the hundreds of functionaries – more famous than the others, admittedly, though his clerk may exaggerate his fame – who work at and for the Agency, the only force of law and order in the city. What’s more, as often as not he solves his cases incorrectly.
Sivart does at least talk like a textbook hard-boiled detective – or rather he writes like one. His clerk has never actually seen him, except in grainy newspaper pictures, and once in a dream. The detectives’ offices are on the 29th floor, the clerks’ on the 14th, where Unwin receives typewritten stream-of-consciousness reports that he has to turn into coherent case files. It’s the relationship between Holmes and Dr Watson, or Poirot and Captain Hastings, depersonalised and bureaucratised. Sivart’s reports read like a pastiche of Raymond Chandler:
The man in charge was a squat little fellow in a rumpled grey suit. The Man of a Thousand and One Voices is more impressive in the carnival posters, with his face lit green by hocus-pocus. In the flesh he looks more like an accountant who’s had a bad day and stumbled into the wrong part of town. He was shaking his head, looking sad about the whole thing. I was sad about it, too, and I let him know, in so many words.
Unwin’s job is to take these ‘notes, fragments, threads of suspicion’ and ‘catalogue them all, then to excise everything that proved immaterial, leaving only the one filament, that glowing silver thread connecting the mystery to its only conceivable solution’. Is it the detective or his chronicler, Sivart or Unwin, Holmes or Watson, who in fact produces the ingenious answers to the apparently insoluble riddles?
Unwin has no doubt about and little dissatisfaction with the lowliness of his status as a clerk, a position he has held, more or less contentedly, for more than twenty years. And so when he is intercepted one morning at Central Terminal by a detective called Pith, given a copy of the detectives’ handbook, The Manual of Detection, and told he has been promoted – is, in fact, ‘already on the job’, though Pith won’t say what the job is, only that Unwin is ‘going to need a new hat’ – the only possible explanation is that ‘an error had been committed, overlooked, and worst of all, disseminated.’ Unwin resolves to have the error corrected as soon as possible, and as a result finds himself breaking all kinds of once cherished protocol. Clinging to the system as it was and as he would like it to be again, he battles the system as it now is, in the process exposing – though he’s almost the last to notice this – the arbitrariness and absurdity of the system tout court.
Arriving at the Agency, he goes straight to the 14th floor, causing considerable embarrassment to the clerks and especially to his former supervisor, Mr Duden, who calls him ‘sir’ and reminds him that it’s against policy for detectives and clerks to speak face to face. Duden knows about Unwin’s promotion because he received a memo about it from a watcher on the 36th floor called Lamech. Unwin heads daringly up to the 36th floor to put things straight. Three detectives in the lift eye him suspiciously.
He tapped his umbrella against the floor while humming a few bars of a tune he knew from the radio, but this must have looked too calculated, since humming and umbrella-tapping were not among his usual habits. So instead of tapping, he used his umbrella as a cane by gently and repeatedly shifting his weight onto it and off it again. This was a habit Unwin could call genuine. But employed as a distraction, it seemed even to him a very suspicious-looking contrivance.
He finds Lamech dead behind his desk. There’s a knock at the door, and he just has time to hide the body before a woman calling herself Vera Truesdale – a name that couldn’t be more glaringly bogus – comes in, and assumes Unwin must be Lamech. ‘Lamech had been Sivart’s watcher, just as he was Sivart’s clerk. Now he was all three of them at once: clerk by appointment, detective by promotion, watcher by mistake.’
The only way to sort out the mess, Unwin decides, is to find Sivart, who’s gone missing. And so, reluctantly, in order not to have to be a detective, he turns detective. Retracing Sivart’s last known movements leads him deep into the underworld of the city, and up against all the detective’s more notorious nemeses: Cleopatra Greenwood, femme fatale; Jasper and Josiah Rook, a sadistic pair of identical twins against whom Unwin plays poker not for money but for the right to ask questions; and, most dastardly of them all, Enoch Hoffmann, the great illusionist and master of ceremonies at the now derelict Caligari’s Travels-No-More Carnival in the old port. They could be characters from a children’s story, if only they weren’t so viciously murderous (the novel’s body count is gratifyingly high). And none of them is quite as sinister as the people Unwin discovers lurking deep underground in previously unknown and unimagined departments of the Agency.
The plot’s bursting with as many twists and surprises as you could hope for. And as it steams along the smooth rails of Berry’s neatly constructed sentences, barrelling round each well-cambered turn with barely a judder, Unwin comes to discover that everyone else’s identity is at least as muddled as his own, and no one is entirely who they seem. There’s the mysterious woman in the plaid coat he goes to catch a glimpse of at Central Terminal every morning, who’s inexplicably given his old job, only as his clerk rather than Sivart’s; or the museum attendant who seems to know rather more than he should about Unwin’s case; or Unwin’s narcoleptic assistant, whom he first encounters slumped over a desk in his office. Dead? No. ‘Don’t fall asleep’ has been typed hundreds of times on the sheet of paper in the typewriter.
As well as these unreliable associates, Unwin has The Manual of Detection to help him. Like the novel it gives its name to, this is a ‘slim hardcover volume, green with gold lettering’, stamped with the Agency’s motto, ‘Never Sleeping’, and divided into chapters on various aspects of the craft: ‘On Shadowing’, ‘On Evidence’, ‘On Corpses’ and so on. When Detective Pith gives Unwin his copy at Central Terminal, he suggests he read what it has to say on page 96 about keeping secrets. As you might expect, Unwin only gets round to reading the passage in question on page 96 of the novel. Berry plays these metafictional games with a light enough – or at least knowing enough – touch for them not to become wearisome. They’re also an early warning sign that Unwin’s world may not work according to the same logic as the reader’s, so that when the plot heads off in a more fantastical direction we’ve been primed for it and don’t bat an eye.
Each chapter of the novel has an epigraph from the equivalent chapter of the handbook: ‘On Clues – Most everything can be divided into two categories: details and clues. Knowing one from the other is more important than knowing your left shoe from your right.’ Unfortunately, for detectives, writers and readers alike, it’s not clear that there’s any surefire way of telling them apart: the details that turn out to be clues are the ones that have a bearing on the solution to the mystery; but the solution to the mystery depends on which details are taken as clues. Like the Agency, or indeed the city, it’s a circular, hermetically sealed system. At the Municipal – a more modest designation than ‘Metropolitan’ – Museum, on the east side of City Park, Unwin discovers a detail that not only doesn’t fit Sivart’s solution to the mystery of ‘The Oldest Murdered Man’, but proves Sivart can’t have been right. It isn’t a detail, it’s a clue. And what were previously thought clues turn out to be mere details – unless they are in fact further clues to a deeper mystery.
The nightmarish story of a humble clerk in an insane bureaucracy in an anonymous city, unexpectedly thrown into an unpleasant situation he doesn’t understand, clearly owes something to Kafka. More useful, if only slightly less obvious points of comparison, however, would be more recent, and more American. Like the trilogy of films starring Matt Damon as the apostate government assassin Jason Bourne, or David Simon’s TV series The Wire, The Manual of Detection is among other things a portrait of a complex, secretive, hierarchical system – the CIA, the Baltimore Police Department, the Agency – that purports to be fighting the forces of terror, crime or chaos to serve the public good, but is in fact dedicated only to maintaining and perpetuating itself.