The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berrywill probably end up in my year end “Best Of” list. It was just about perfectly conceived, perfectly executed, perfectly written, and perfectly charming. I’m hard pressed to think of any critiques. It’s that good.
With that said, it’s not for everyone. This review copy originally went to Raven, who thought it was good but perhaps she wasn’t the right reviewer for it. So she sent it to me. And by sheer luck, I read it just shy of a month after the paperback release date.
The Manual of Detection is a very quirky, well-mannered steampunk fantasy mystery. It is somewhat literary, but never boring. It’s the story of Charles Unwin, clerk of a huge detective agency, who is unexpectedly promoted to Detective shortly after the disappearance of the most famous Agency detective, Travis Sivart.
Mr. Unwin is a man who knows his limitations. He knows that he has no business being a detective. After all, he wears a green trilby hat rather than a fedora, and his shoes always squeak. So his goal is to find Detective Sivart so he can get his old job back.
Permit me to rave about the presentation of the hardcover edition. It’s designed to look like a manual. It has a government-issue green cover, with black embellishments, within which alarm clocks, fingerprints, keys and footprints can be found. It also has a prominent eye. The eye is on the back as well, along with the motto, “Never Sleeping”. It’s a treat, mostly because everything on the cover becomes significant as the story unfolds.
The chapters are each accompanied by a quote from the fictional Manual of Detection. Each quote applies to something that’s going to happen in that chapter. One of these chapters becomes part of the story, and when I read that chapter number, I had to laugh out loud.
The Manual of Detection is a novel of typewriters, if immense filing cabinets, of umbrellas, of alarm clocks, of dumbwaiters, of bicycles, of telephones and of record players. It’s also a novel of steam trucks, of dream recording engines, of ever-winding watches, of traveling carnivals that travel no more, and of unofficial trips for unofficial reasons. No year is given, but I’d guess it takes place in the thirties or forties. There are telephones, electricity, radios, and cars, but no hint of anything like computers, which might have existed in a huge detective agency by the fifties.
Although the novel is told strictly from Charles Unwin’s point-of-view, you never know exactly what he is thinking until he speaks, or what he’s going to do until he’s already doing it. He’s both fussy and bold. When he sneaks into the archives, he gets caught, but then manages to get the archivists to trust him. All three of them. And he’s completely sincere when he is doing it–he takes advantage of no one. He’s an expert clerk, bicyclist, and umbrella wielder. And, he’s a meticulous dreamer.
The only thing I would have wished for was more of the detective agency in its “before” state. Because once it goes “after”, there’s no going back. However, I understand that to include any more might have bogged down the story.
If you read this novel, my advice is to pay attention. Try to read it over a short timespan and pay particular attention to characters who seem to talk about irrelevant things. All is relevant. This will be a wonderful book to reread.
Mr. Barry has achieved critical acclaim with The Manual of Detection, and it is well-deserved. I can’t wait to read his next book.