x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Philosophical investigations

Books Siddhartha Deb scopes out two crime novels that play off readers' expectations about the genre.

Jedediah Berry's protagonist steps beyond the boundaries of the detective genre and into a world that, like our own, is messy and confusing.
Jedediah Berry's protagonist steps beyond the boundaries of the detective genre and into a world that, like our own, is messy and confusing.

Siddhartha Deb scopes out two crime novels that play off readers' expectations about the genre. The Manual of Detection Jedediah Berry Penguin Press Dh88 Wonderful World Javier Calvo Translated by Mara Faye Lethem Harper Dh110 Every reader of the crime novel has a theory of the crime novel. It may lurk deep down, present in consciousness only as a set of expectations about problems and solutions, but it always exists. This knowingness on the part of the reader, this ever-present sense of the story operating in tandem with a set of rules, makes crime fiction a debased literary school partial to predictable stories and bad writing - and a genre whose fundamental dependence on rules makes deviation exciting and rewarding.

Jedediah Berry's debut novel, The Manual of Detection, makes it clear from the beginning that it desires a place in the second category. Set in a nameless city where it never stops raining, it opens with the unheroic image of "Mr Charles Unwin, lifelong resident of this city", bicycling to work with an umbrella strapped to his handlebar. Unwin is an unlikely protagonist for a crime novel. True, he works for the mysterious "Agency", a private investigation outfit that occupies an entire building on the borderline between downtown and the old, anarchic port city. However, he is not a detective but a detective's clerk; his work consists entirely of writing up and filing the case notes of Travis T Sivart, the most celebrated of the Agency's operatives. Unwin is content in this role, happy with his bicycle, umbrella and the wristwatch he received for 20 years of devoted service. His peers are not the hard-boiled American detectives found in the work Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but the petty officials and minor civil servants who populate much of 19th-century Russian fiction.

Unwin's comfortable routine, however, falls apart soon after we meet him. Sivart - the "detective's detective" responsible for keeping the notorious criminal Enoch Hoffmann at bay and for solving cases like "The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker" - is missing. And there is a growing sense that the Agency and the city it protects are under renewed threat from Hoffmann and his allies among the underclass. This, by itself, is enough to disconcert Unwin; he is even more shocked when he is moved, without explanation, from his clerk's desk on the 14th floor to a private office on the 29th. He has been effectively promoted to detective - which means that he receives the physical trappings of the genre: badge, gun, female assistant and (less predictably) a copy of the Agency's ur-text, The Manual of Detection.

At this point, a stale detective novel might have Unwin flash his badge at a minor official, fire his gun at a thug, and discover his female assistant to be either coyly supportive or seductively dangerous. But Unwin doesn't want the badge, doesn't know how to use a gun, and is far less competent than his assistant. He decides to investigate Sivart's absence only because he wants his familiar clerking job back.

It is the Agency manual Unwin receives, a quote from which precedes each chapter, that truly pushes things beyond mere mystery. These extracts describe the elements of criminal investigation - shadowing, evidence, corpses and clues - as they are portrayed in crime novels. What is impressive here is not just the postmodern playfulness - the blurring of the lines between Unwin's Manual and ours - but the genuine artfulness. The chapter On Evidence, for example, begins:

"Objects have memory, too. The doorknob remembers who turned it, the telephone who answered it. The gun remembers when it was last fired, and by whom. It is for the detective to learn the language of these things, so that he might hear them when they have something to say." There is a poetry to the writing here, but also an alertness to ideas. Berry doesn't stop after reminding us that physical evidence is a trope of crime fiction. Instead, he pushes us to ponder what a strange thing the genre is, steeped in a materialism so extreme that objects like guns and doorknobs speak a truth that human beings won't or can't. In this he joins the ranks of thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, who saw early crime fiction's fixation on physical evidence as a manifestation of a capitalist world where objects, or even scraps of objects, take precedence over human beings.

The nature of Berry's accomplishment is illuminated by comparison to another recent crime novel concerned with the manipulation of genre expectations. In Javier Calvo's Wonderful World, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem, a young Barcelonian antique dealer named Lucas Giraut attempts to save the family business and solve the mystery surrounding his late father's unjust imprisonment some 30 years ago. Giraut is an affecting creation, a pudgy young nerd whose designer suits fail to redress an utter lack of machismo or help him stand up to his strong-willed, silicone-infused mother who wants to sideline him while globalising the family business. Calvo is clearly interested in evoking the feverish, speculative deal-making of the gold rush days of global capital, which often brought together new money and old artefacts, high and pop culture, big business and the gangster spirit. Thus Giraut's plan involves enlisting a strip-club owner and his criminal associates in a scheme to steal a group of medieval paintings called the St Kieran panels, which he hopes to sell at a vast profit to a global collector whose most defining feature is his spectacular wealth. While saving the business and showing his mother who's boss, he will also solve the mystery of his father, who met his ruin in search of the St Kieran panels. In his preface, Calvo credits "the ghost of Charles Dickens" with writing his novel. The influence is most obvious in Giraut's fixation on his father's undoing and imprisonment. It is also evident in Calvo's deft plotting, generous use of cliffhangers, and exaggerated characters: Bocanegra, the large and menacing strip club owner who wears women's fur coats; Pavel, a minor Russian gangster who aspires to be a Rastafarian; and Hannah Linus, the Swedish owner of the gallery where the St Kieran panels are being exhibited, who is cold and ambitious on the surface but secretly filled with wild, hedonistic lust. The problem with this amusing tale is that Calvo riffs on so many genres and influences at once that it is hard for him to explore or exploit any one in a meaningful way. Perhaps in keeping with the fact that he has translated David Foster Wallace into Spanish, he seems committed to the kind of frenzied, excessive postmodernism that produces large casts of characters surrounded by a barrage of cultural references, brand names and helter-skelter prose. So, in addition to the characters already mentioned, we also meet Aníbal Manta, a gargantuan hit man who reads X-Men comics (a clear commentary on the bizarrely cobbled-together nature of Giraut's gang); Valentina, Giraut's neighbour and closest friend, a 12-year-old girl who seems to be growing delusional in her obsession with the writing of Stephen King; and so on. There is even a running extract from a fictitious King novel called Wonderful World, suspenseful and hokey in equal measure. But this similarity to the Manual of Detection within The Manual of Detection only highlights the differences between the two writers. For Berry, the conventions of mysteries are useful tools for asking the same sorts of questions that literature, genre-tweaking or otherwise, has always asked. For Calvo, they are another set of cultural artefacts to joke around with. His novel possesses an affected irony that is the equivalent of the narrator constantly drawing scare quotes in the air, as in this representative sample: "As the Jaguar gets to the end of the Ramblas, the landscape changes. The tiny street entrances on either side are filled with shady-looking people. With that stereotypical gesturing that people use when carrying out illegal transactions. Looking around furtively. Making transactions below waist level and looking over their shoulders with serious expressions. There are also guys vomiting with the palms of their hands resting on the façades of buildings and their heads hanging between their arms." This approach is by turns dazzling and irritating. More importantly, behind its frenetic excess, Calvo's book is a fairly conventional thriller. There is never any doubt about who is good, who is bad and what general shape the resolution will take. Berry's denouement is more complicated. As Unwin goes uneasily about trying to find Sivart so that he can return to his clerk job, the novel begins to raise questions not just about Sivart (the living embodiment of the detective genre) but the nature and function of the Agency. As Unwin penetrates deeper into the mysteries of the organisation he has served so faithfully, and so unquestioningly, he discovers that above the detectives are the watchers, high functionaries who practice a form of dream detection that involves entering the minds of citizens and criminals alike (a process rendered beautifully in a stunning sequence). Unwin also learns that many of the "criminals" the Agency is fighting are little more than poor people that the city doesn't want inside its tightly patrolled boundaries. As we follow these revelations, it becomes almost impossible not to read the The Manual of Detection as an allegory for our own times, in which the methods applied in the name of keeping would-be terrorists at check are often as insidious as the evils they are meant to prevent. Unwin, the everyman hero, eventually comes to question the official line about crime and terror - to understand that the conflict in his world is not just between crime and detection, but also between power and liberty, with no neat or permanent divisions between the two. In doing so, he steps beyond the boundaries of his genre and into a world that, like our own, is messy and confusing, the kind of place Walter Benjamin had in mind when he wrote: "In times of terror, when everything is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in the position of having to play detective." Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novels The Point of Return and An Outline of the Republic.