The unnamed city in Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection is a surreal world of rain, gunmen, femme fatale, reluctant detectives, murder, stolen days, and stolen dreams. This is a noir novel set in a Jorge Luis Borges world and from the first sentence onward is utterly engrossing.
Charles Unwin is the unlikely and unwilling hero. A clerk in the monolithically bureaucratic detective Agency that looms over the city, he has spent his life meticulously documenting, filing and cataloguing the exploits of Sivart, the most celebrated detective in the Agency. When Sivart goes missing, Unwin finds himself promoted to detective, framed for murder, and on a reluctant quest to solve a series of surreal mysteries, clear his name, and find Sivart, armed only with a copy of the titular Manual of Detection that is suspiciously missing Chapter 18.
There are the requisite number of femme fatales, twists, turns, and hardboiled detectives, necessary for any noir fiction. The real success of the novel is the nearly seamless welding of those hardboiled noir sensibilities with the increasingly surreal and fantastical into a baroque, timeless setting.
The Manual of Detection is not flawless, however. The setting and the brooding, off-kilter surreal atmosphere are superbly constructed, and the plot is tightly structured, but Unwin is by nature a very passive main character who spends the novel following in others footsteps and reacting to circumstance. Likewise, Berry looses his tight grip towards the end, and the climax is a little disappointing. Nonetheless, The Manual of Detection was an impressive debut. I fell in love with the writing style, and have been waiting impatiently for his next novel.