The first book listed by Nancy Pearl in her recent NPR feature on Mysteries You Might Have Missed Along the Way is Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection. I didn't miss that one⎯it was one of my favourite reads of the year so far. But I did miss telling you about it, so I'm going to piggyback on Pearl's recommendation to do so belatedly now. Pearl beautifully sums up this very difficult to sum up book as follows:
Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is the sort of novel that is impossible to characterize with any accuracy. An amalgamation of literary fiction, fantasy and mystery, it echoes with tributes to the writing of Borges, Calvino, Auster and Kafka. But for all that it may resemble, The Manual of Detection is entirely original. Set in a building known only as The Agency in an unknown, somewhat eerie city, the novel features Charles Unwin, a finicky, routine-driven clerk who works for a famous detective named Sivart.
One day, everything in Unwin's ordered life is thrown into disarray when Sivart's boss is murdered, Sivart disappears and Unwin is unwillingly promoted to detective from his lowly position as a clerk (a job he looks forward to every day). The only way Unwin can get his beloved clerkship back is to find Sivart, but while trying to do so, he uncovers the existence of a dastardly plot to take over the world by an organization bent on infiltrating people's dreams.
It sounds promising, does it not? And that promise is fully realized in the novel. Here's a list of overlapping reasons why I loved The Manual of Detection:
1. The plot is crazily inventive. There were moments when it was all so surreal that I just let myself drift (dreamlike) and didn't even try to follow the thread of the plot. But then some connection would spark for me and I'd be fiercely puzzling it all out again. The latter mode of reading was a cerebral pleasure, and the former, just a pleasure.
2. The novel is marvelously atmospheric. The universe that Berry has created here is one that I relished inhabiting. I didn't want to leave it at the end. (For a taste of it, click over to the book's website which somehow conjures up the same mood.)
3. The novel both is The Manual of Detection and is about The Manual Detection. I'm a sucker for books within books, and this one is framed very cleverly and with a deeply satisfying attention to detail. For example, early on one of the characters makes reference to page 96 of the Manual. I immediately turned to page 96 of the novel and was pleased by what I found there.
4. It is full of arresting images that have stuck with me weeks afterward, chief among them, our reluctant hero Charles Unwin bicycling in the rain under an umbrella ingeniously hooked to his handlebars.
I can't wait to see what fabulous book next emerges from the fertile brain of Jedediah Berry. In the meantime, I'll likely reread this one a time or two.