Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review: The Manual of Detection, Jededian Berry


The Penguin Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59420-211-7. 278 pages.
The Manual of Detection is a decidedly odd but fun book. It doesn't fall into the sort of crime books I usually review here but it does have crime and detectives and it is great fun. The experience of reading it is similar to what I felt with The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (pseud. of Brian O'Nolan). If you demand realism in your detective stories then you should give this one a pass.

In a nameless city where it has been raining for fourteen days, Charles Unwin is a clerk of twenty years for the Agency, a detective agency that occupies an entire high-rise office building. Unwin is the clerk for ace detective Travis Sivart. His job is to take the reports submitted by Sivart and document the case, remove the extraneous, integrate subsequent reports. He is proud of his ability to give names to the cases - The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, The Oldest Murdered Man, The Man Who Stole November Twelfth.

Unwin has a morning ritual of going to the Central Terminal train station and observing the woman in the plaid coat who appears every morning at the same time waiting for someone to arrive who never does. One morning when Unwin has finally gained to courage to approach the woman he is intercepted by an Agency detective who tells him he has been promoted to detective and gives him a copy of The Manual of Detection, standard issue. Thinking it is a mistake, Unwin goes to his floor in the Agency where he finds the woman in the plaid coat occupying his desk and apparently now his clerk. A note directs him to his new watcher, Lamech, who Unwin finds strangled in his office. At a knock on the office door, Unwin panics and shoves Lamech under the desk and allows himself to mistaken for Lamech by the woman at the door, Vera Truesdale. She wants Sivart assigned to solve a personal mystery.

In his new office (formally occupied by Sivart), Unwin finds he has an efficient assistant named Emily Doppel who is also likely to fall into a deep sleep at unexpected times. He also receives his badge and gun. With his watcher dead, Unwin tells Emily that their first case is to find out what happened to Sivart. Looking for a place to start, they search the office, finding nothing. Unwin has a clerk's trick up his sleeve, though. Sivart's typewriter ribbon is fairly new and he and Emily are able to read the words Municipal Museum so that's where they will start. The museum is also the scene of one of Sivart's famous cases, The Oldest Murdered Man.

The story moves between reality and dream worlds. There are scenes too surreal to summarize, people who are not who they seem, people who can manipulate people's dreams, murderous (formally conjoined) twins, a crime syndicate based in a decaying carnival.

For me, this is a wonderful work of imagination. Berry is able to make an unreal world seem real with the detail and organization he applies to the story. I'm also a sucker for a mysterious organization and Unwin's exploration of the hidden departments within the Agency is most interesting and intriguing.

I recommend this book if you enjoy well constructed fantasy