Describing Jedediah Berry’s debut novel is no simple task. Any halfway accurate comparison requires mixing and matching things that don’t really go together, like “Columbo” and The City of Lost Children, or Alice in Wonderland and one of Kafka’s sinister office buildings. The Manual of Detection is a detective story, obviously, but the detectives in it don’t actually solve crimes, and the main character, Charles Unwin, isn’t a detective at all. In short, take everything you think you know about classic pulp-noir detective fiction, turn it sideways and look at it through a hall of mirrors—that’s pretty close.
Unwin is a lowly clerk who loves and excels at his job and is deeply annoyed to wake up one day and find himself promoted. Each clerk at the Agency, where he works, is assigned to file the case reports of a particular detective, and Unwin’s detective, the superstar Travis T. Sivart, has vanished. If he wants his old job back, Unwin has to find Sivart.
So far, not so weird. But consider that it’s been raining steadily for weeks, all the alarm clocks in the city are missing, everyone’s sleepwalking, and the guy who promoted Unwin is now a corpse under the desk. Also, the main surveillance technique at the Agency seems to be spying on people’s dreams.
The heart of Berry’s story is the fragile balance between order and chaos. Unwin is a devoted champion of the former, while the book’s primary villain, Hoffman, wants to turn the city into a 24-hour carnival.
The world in which all of this plays out is a sort of retro steampunk, noir-ish take on classic Sam Spade territory: people use phonographs and manual typewriters; the detectives judge each other by the suaveness of their hats; two of the villain’s henchmen drive a truck that is essentially a huge boiler room on wheels. Femme fatales await Unwin around every corner, some helpful, some deadly, most of them somewhere in between. All this rich texture, delivered with deadpan style and combined with the twisty story’s fast pace, makes for an immensely satisfying read.
Reviewer Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Jedediah Berry, author of The Manual of Detection, is also the science fiction reviewer for BookPage.