When I was in my mid-teens, one of my friends was rather obsessed with Film (capital intended). I watched a lot of movies that year, most of which I could tell you little about. Brazil remains completely hazy in my memory, only a single screen shot of a greyscale monolith interior, a voice echoing thinly off the bare walls, clear in my memory. Try as I might, I couldn’t get rid of that image while reading The Manual of Detection.
Charles Unwin, formerly reliable, dutiful clerk for the Agency, has made a break in his routine. Now instead of biking promptly to work, he detours out of his way to Central Terminal so he can ‘accidentally’ cross paths with a woman in a plaid coat and grey hat. Today, as he almost meets her after a conveniently dropped umbrella, he is interrupted by a detective with the Agency. Unwin is ready to stutter his excuse when Detective Pith hands him a copy of The Manual of Detection, telling him he’s been promoted to detective. “Detective Pith waved one hand, as though to clear smoke from the air. ‘I’ve already said more than I should have. The point is, Unwin, you’re going to need a new hat.‘”
Unwin is left perplexed, as he’s done nothing to merit promotion. As lead clerk for the Agency’s star, Detective Sivart, he has meticulously prepared and filed reports, all to the greater glory of Sivart. Unwin, who prefers to remain a clerk, is convinced this is a bureaucratic mistake. When he goes to his old desk, he finds it cleared and the woman in plaid in his place. He heads upstairs to Sivart’s superior in the Agency, his ‘watcher,’ but instead finds the watcher strangled at his desk. A mysterious woman appears for an appointment, but rather than be caught with the body, Unwin pushes it beneath the desk and pretends to be the superior. From there, Unwin finds himself vaguely looking for Detective Sivart, hoping that by finding him he can regain his treasured clerk position. His efforts first take him through levels of the Agency he’s never dared, where he meets his new assistant Emily and confronts a trio of moderately unlikeable detectives, to the Museum and an elderly guard, where he discovers Sivart did not, in fact, solve the case of The Oldest Murdered Man. Then to a bar, a hotel, the trains, a carnival–all the traditional atmospheric places of the noir. Things get weird when he discovers the mysterious woman sleepwalking from her hotel to a stately mansion, along with other inhabitants of the city. They all carry alarm clocks, leaving them at the door with the nefarious Rook Brothers.
Unfortunately, I must have been one of the citizens susceptible to the spell of sleep enveloping the city, because as interesting as that description may sound, I regularly fell asleep every 50 or so pages. Well, at least I’m well-rested now. If you’ve followed my reviews, you know there are a variety of elements that keep me reading: plot, language, creativity, characters. Sadly, for me, Manual fails on all fronts. No doubt deliberately, Berry uses particularly neutral wording–albeit highly competent–and gives little description beyond general, third-grade vocabulary. For instance, the mysterious woman is described:
“The woman wore a black dress with white lace around the collar and cuffs. The dress was very fine, but of a style Unwin had not seen worn in the city for ten years or more. In her hands she clutched a small purse, also strangely old-fashioned. Her hair was bound up in a black lace cap, still damp from the rain. She was perhaps ten years older than Unwin, and very beautiful–a real stunner, Sivart might have written. She was also the most tired-looking woman Unwin had ever seen.”
Do you see? Vocabulary as neutral as a glass of water. Contrast that to the first introduction of the femme fatale in every hard-boiled detective novel, ever. The description here is largely about the clothes, not the woman. The context of the clothes is ‘fine, but dated.’ Hair is described without context–is it modern? Also dated? Blonde? Meticulously styled? It is as if Berry endeavored to write a book outside of the context of place and time, yet without the vividness of dreaming. In fact, it is no doubt his intention, as the setting is as meticulously bland as the characters. It is labelled “The City,” with the “Museum,” “Grand Terminal,” and “the bay” as locations, attempting to be Anycity, Anywhere.
This description is by no means an exception. A few pages earlier, on entering the office:
“No response. He knocked harder, and the door swung inward. The room was dark, but in the column of light from the hall Unwin saw a broad maroon rug, shelves of thick books with blue and brown spines, a pair of cushioned chairs angled toward a desk at the back. To one side was a great dark globe, and before the window loomed a bald and massive globelike head. On the desk a telephone, a typewriter and a lamp, unlit.”
Again, about the only description with finesse or significance is the “loomed” and “globelike,” otherwise the vocabulary is about as neutral as a waiting room. You’d think it gets better when we get to the circus, but it doesn’t, not really. I’m sure there’s some message or point, but frankly, I like my fiction to wake me up, not put me to sleep. Slow pace, hazy dream-like sequences (as opposed to the vivid ones that you remember or leaving you gasping when you awake), the most neutral Everyman possible as main character, a bland city, and a general absence of imagery means there was little to maintain my attention.
I was this close to giving up when I decided to peruse GR and see what other reviewers had to say. A number alluded to a powerful ending, so I fortified myself with caffeine and tried the last third again. They were right, the pace and color of the book significantly changes for the better. Alas that by then, I hardly cared; the sudden shift to action and the somewhat obvious metaphor barely moved me. The whole book was for this? Think The Night Circus without the vividly described circus. Think being fifteen, watching Brazil only to fall asleep in the middle, and awaken blurry and confused for the ending.
I kind of get it, but I don’t think Berry achieved his goals. This isn’t Rene Magritte, although perhaps the bicyclist with the fedora on the cover, the bowler hats and the umbrellas are all supposed to make one think of it. Magritte is more clever, colorful and precisely deconstructionist, the lifelike details pushing the scene into the surreal:
Whereas The Manual of Detection is more like one of those highbrow genre-insider things, details you don’t really get unless you are intimately familiar with the genre(s), much like geometric abstract art:
Although to be honest, that about describes my response to the book.