In an unnamed city always slick with rain, Charles Unwin toils as a clerk at a huge, imperious detective agency. But when an illustrious detective, Travis Sivart, goes missing, Unwin is reluctantly thrust into the role of investigator. His only guidance comes from a sleepy secretary and the pithy yet profound Manual of Detection. Soon he finds himself framed for murder, pursued by gunmen, and confounded by a femme fatale. Meanwhile, strange and troubling questions proliferate: Why does the mummy at the Municipal Museum have modern-day dental work? Where have all the city’s alarm clocks gone? Why is Unwin’s copy of the Manual missing Chapter 18?
When he discovers that Sivart’s greatest cases were solved incorrectly, Unwin must enter the dreams of a murdered man and face a criminal mastermind bent on total control of a slumbering city.
Just four pages into Jedediah Berry’s debut novel, I turned to my husband and said: “This book is amazing. Like, really fantastically good.” Isolating the sentence that had prompted me to speak, I read it to him, smiling.
As he had the previous morning, and the seven mornings before that, Unwin willed with all the power in his lanky soul that time, like the train at the end of its track, would stop.
My husband is not a reader and he looked at me, baffled. What was so great about it, he wanted to know. And you know what? I couldn’t give him an answer. Because, who knows, maybe those words would only work for me, maybe I would be the only one who felt like a loose loop of yarn caught on an exposed nail after reading that sentence. But I certainly didn’t want to unhook myself from the book, wouldn’t dream of it, in fact.
And still, saying The Manual of Detection is “amazing” and “really fantastically good” doesn’t cut it.
See, first, there’s Charles Unwin. I liked him a lot. For me, he was reminiscent of Richard Mayhew from Gaiman’s Neverwhere in that he rather blithely walks into and through an extraordinary situation, and manages to be unintentionally charming and endearing all the while. I loved Unwin’s tendency to tell anyone everything, the exact opposite of what a detective would do, and I loved that, perversely, he never suffered any consequence for the things he revealed. In fact, it seemed to help him. I also loved that he was unknowingly brave, unswervingly calm even when running for his life, and that in the game of hide and seek that is The Manual of Detection, Unwin was “it.”
The man with the blond beard looked up, his eyes bulging with violence. “Find another phone,” he hissed. “I was here first.”
“Were you speaking about me just then?” Unwin asked.
The man said into the receiver, “He wants to know if I was speaking about him just then.” He listened and nodded some more, then said to Unwin, “No, I wasn’t speaking about you.”
Unwin was seized by a terrible panic. He wanted to run back to his seat or, better yet, back to his apartment, forget everything he had read in the Manual, everything that had happened that day. Instead, without thinking, he snatched the telephone out of the man’s hand and put it to his own face. He was still shaking, but his voice was steady as he said, “Now, listen here. I don’t know who you are, but I’d appreciate it if you’d keep to your own affairs. What business is it of yours what I’m doing?”
And that leads me to my next point, this sort of sly humor, almost like humor without conscious thought, that is a near constant thread throughout the novel. So, add the humor and the wonderful characterization to Berry’s stylized, intelligent writing and puzzle of a plot, and what you’ve got is something truly special. Seriously, I strongly urge you to find a copy of The Manual of Detection. It’s like everything and nothing you’ve ever read.
Once Upon a Time III Challenge
1. The Shadow Queen
2. Vampirates: Black Heart
3. The Manual of Detection*
*I’m including this one because, well, I think this sentence from the novel sums up why nicely: “In his dream of Lamech’s dream of Hoffman’s dream of Sivart’s dream, a dreaming Unwin opened his bathroom door…”