The world Jedediah Berry creates in The Manual of Detection is both familiar and strange. There are detectives who investigate mysteries, but their cases have names like “The Man Who Stole November 12th” and “The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker.” A man named Charles Unwin tries to get his old job back, but discovers he must first figure out who is controlling the sleeping city’s dreams. It’s this creative mixture of mystery and surrealism that makes Berry’s novel both unique and delightfully eerie.
Charles Unwin has many talents. He can ride his bicycle through the city’s slick streets while simultaneously holding his umbrella aloft; he is a meticulous dreamer, who can exert control over the images that flood his brain at night; and, perhaps most importantly, he is incredibly adept at maintaining order. As one of the Agency’s most dedicated clerks Unwin possesses a definite knack for transforming mysteries into tidy, logical explanations, especially when he is piecing together airtight solutions from the reports of Detective Travis Sivart. But when Sivart goes missing, Unwin’s own world is profoundly disrupted. In fact, he is whisked away from his clerk’s desk, handed a book, and told that his new title is Detective.
Initially, Unwin’s main goal is to find Sivart so things can go back to the way they were, with Sivart doing the detection, and Unwin finalizing the subsequent solutions. Before Unwin realizes it, however, his search for Sivart catalyzes his own transformation from clerk to detective. By using the Manual of Detection that was given to him following his unexpected promotion, Unwin gradually learns how to bluff, tail, and scheme his way through mystery after mystery.
The Agency is accustomed to usurping the plans of its standard enemies such as Enoch Hoffman ("The Man Who Stole November 12th") and the Travels-No-More Carnival. But this time, the city is besieged by a highly unconventional nemesis: its own sleeping citizens. Someone has infiltrated the minds of the dozing, turning them into a mighty legion of sleepwalking puppets. In a city overrun with somnambulists, the boundary between dream and reality begins to disintegrate, and Unwin’s quest becomes increasingly complex. As the Agency and a nefarious puppet master wage war over the city and its citizens, Unwin finds himself in the middle of the power struggle, following Sivart’s trail into the very heart of distortion and subterfuge.
The Manual of Detection is a very clever novel. It is structured to parallel the Manual of Detection given to Unwin, with chapter headings related to skullduggery, interrogation, and dream detection. While the book-within-a-book aesthetic can come across as gimmicky, Berry makes it fresh and interesting. The novel is also an exemplary representation of the kind of syncretic work that can be produced by carefully and deliberately combining elements of noir, pulp, steampunk, and surrealism. The result of this literary synthesis is a very engaging story that stays with you long after the last page.