Freaks versus clerks — Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection


“I am an enemy to messiness in all its forms,” says a detective while polishing the handle of his office door. In Jedediah Berry’s novel The Manual of Detection two forces are pitted against each other: the dark, austere Agency with its strict hierarchy of uniformed detectives, clerks, messengers and watchers that all follow clear rules versus the messy, colorful Carnival full of limping, asymmetric and over-sized inhabitants that defy this order.

The main character of The Manual is the clerk responsible for the cases of a famous Über-detective. He is the epitome of orderliness: an unambitious bore, who without his doing gets thrown into an adventure and develops surprising skills and character traits. The feel of the book is a mix of film noir and steampunk: It constantly rains and the skies are dark, and technology is at a typewriter level even though the Agency’ archives are closer to modern databases and as well organized and cross-referenced. The Manual is self-referential: the novel’s title refers to the Agency’s guide book for detectives. And when page 96 of this guide book is quoted, it -of course- happens on page 96 of the novel.
The central theme of The Manual is the balance of power between the Agency and the Carnival, order and chaos. Presented as eternal enemies, they are indeed deeply connected and balanced. And even the famous detective is -without knowing it- a marionette used to maintain this balance. The balance is upset by mistake (when the detective-marionette accidentally solves a case correctly) and the result is devastating: the Carnival looks beaten, but only goes into hiding and prepares its revenge with acts of terrorism that leave the whole city sleep-walking.

Sleeping is the second theme of the book. “Never sleep” is the Agency’s motto. Sleeping means entering alternative worlds, yours or someone elses, and bad dreams can literally kill you. Using technology the NSA would be proud of, the Agency manages to spy on other people’s dreams and influence them. The fight between the Carnival and the Agency thus becomes one about the total control of people, their conscious and unconscious selves.

Given how important the balance between order and chaos is for The Manual, it is quite disappointing how clean the ending is. Yes, the Carnival is revigorated. Yes, the Agancy’s superiority is broken – but it all ends to nicely, too well constructed. A bit of chaotic Carnival, some lose ends would have been good for this book.


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