The Manual of Detection by Jedidiah Berry

May 4, 2009 at 11:18 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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My copy of Manual of Detection had a very stylish hardcover design that amounted to a promise from the publisher that this would be an unusual book.  So it was.  The setup is pretty simple: it’s a fantasy novel about a detective.  If you’re widely read in fantasy you’ve probably read something similar, but the striking thing here is the subgenre of fantasy involved.  It’s not a Tolkienesque fantasy (like Brust’s Taltos series, which aren’t quite about a detective but read like it) nor is it urban fantasy (like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files).  No, this is a much more unusual brand of fantasy: dreamy and surreal in the tradition of Mervyn Peake.

And let’s get this out of the way.  When someone who isn’t good at it tries to do surreal and dreamlike it’s a disaster, but Berry very much knows what he’s doing here.  He resists the urge to overdo the prose and instead focuses on the main character and his battle to understand his surroundings.  The protagonist’s disorientation is transmitted to the reader as the world depicted seems to operate according to subconscious whim instead of conscious logic.

Alas, it doesn’t quite work.  Not for me, at least.  The first problem is thematic: detective stories are about facts and logical inference.  Surrealism is…not.  This won’t be news to Berry, for this is explored somewhat in the book, but not nearly to my satisfaction.  Lurking beneath the currents of delightful oddity is a very ordinary mystery with few surprises.  Meanwhile, the fantasy element ultimately destabilizes the action, for the demands of the surrealist tone mean the ground rules for the world are never setup.  In fact, the setting is kept deliberately vague and out of focus.  It’s a device that does a marvelous job communicating the alienation of the main character but it prohibits world building of any sort.  The revelations, when they come, seem out of left field, and with these restrictions how could they not?

Sometimes the journey can make up for an unimpressive destination, and I felt that was the case here.  Ultimately this may not be totally successful but it is a book worth reading, especially if you enjoyed Gormenghast or similar books.

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