Star detective Travis T. Sivart is missing. More Phillip Marlowe than Sherlock Holmes, Sivart has been responsible for unraveling the strange crimes of arch-villain, and master of disguise, Enoch Hoffman, ever since Hoffman and his Travels-No-More Carnival occupied the outskirts of the city. Now, with Sivart having disappeared, the city is sliding into chaos; citizens are trapped in fugue states and engaging in strange behavior; signs that Hoffman is making a play for control of more than just the ragged big top under his purview abound. Enter Charles Unwin; a lowly clerk in the employ of The Agency, the solvers of mystery and protectors of the public good. Unwin is, if not happy, then at least content to be the chronicler of Sivart’s cases; collating facts and compiling the exploits of derring-do that Unwin admired but never wanted to experience. Improbably, Unwin is whisked into the world of sensible hats and shoulder holsters in Sivart’s stead, given nothing more than the seventeen slim chapters that serve as the book’s title to go about finding his famed predecessor.
But even that resource is thrown into question, as a strange dream encounter with Sivart reveals the existence of an eighteenth chapter excised for field operatives. Unwin sets out reluctantly to find Sivart in the hopes of everything going back to normal, armed only with a head for detail and a sleepy secretary in love with the life of a detective. Normal falls by the wayside early on, as Unwin proceeds to uncover the actual status quo in the city; a strange balance between falsely resolved mystery and hidden connections whose exposure throws the work of both The Agency and The Carnival into question.
Most appreciated about The Manual of Detection is that, though it is a strange world we’re dropped into, there is no overt attempt to beat us over the head with explanatory exposition. The city is totally noir, phonographs are still en vogue, a giant steam-powered truck serves as conveyance for dead-eyed henchmen, and the gin joint next to the cemetery is the place to ask your questions. The standard detective story archetypes are well-represented but smartly tweaked adding a layer of the fantastic that enhances the story without hijacking the tone.
Jedediah Berry’s first full-length novel is wonderful. With boundless imagination and razor keen characterization, he has delivered a smart, fun story that appeals to the mystery lover and the magical realist fan all at once. The Manual of Detection is strange without being silly; intricate without being minutia-laden; whimsical while still keeping the reader riding the secret subway and plumbing the depths of the hidden catacombs in an attempt to stay one step ahead of gunmen and deranged puppet masters.