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07 May 2010

#18 The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

I read a half-dozen or so webcomics regularly (by regularly I mean obsessively) and one of my favorites is Jeph Jacques' Questionable Content. Some weeks back, he plugged this title, calling it a "really cool China Mieville meets Raymond Chandler with a dash of Jasper Fforde fantasy detective story." That was good enough for me!
This book comes with it's own website (and cheesy music, mute button top right).

Charles Unwin is a clerk, a rather predictable man in a very predictable life. He excels at his rather boring position in the exciting world of the Agency, a city-enveloping semiofficial detective firm. As a clerk, he re-writes the reports of star Detective Sivart, dotting I's and crossing T's and cleaning out all of the personal commentary that the gregarious Detective Sivart puts in his reports. Unwin's pride is his work, and he excels at it, right until Detective Sivart disappears from the city. Under strange circumstances, Unwin is promoted from clerk to detective, with a private office and a personal assistant and a watcher ready to give Unwin his first case. Unfortunately, the watcher is murdered before the details of the case can be given. Unwin decides that his best option is to find the missing Detective Sivart and give the case over to him. His clues are the case files that he so carefully edited, and he is helped by a cast of shady characters and suspects through a very fun and tongue-in-cheek story.

This is Mr. Berry's first book, but the writing is crafted much better than that of other debut novels I've read. He uses small details to create a surrealistic setting and give a very meta feel to the book; I'm not going to define that any further because it's fun to discover. With a little imagination, the writing allows you to immerse yourself in his world. I suspect that someone well-versed in the noir genre would find the setting a little over the top and hokey, but to me it was stylistically charming. With the exception of Unwin, the characters were rather flat and undeveloped, but this again came off as stylistic. Unwin goes through a little self-development and I think discovery, though that discovery could simply be the reveal of the solution.

With a small exception at the end of the story, I quite enjoyed the plot. Berry took slightly too long with the reveal; there was too much chasing of loose ends and stage setting when we should've simply been finding out what happened. Throughout the rest of the book, the plot advances at a good pace, with an appropriate balance of puzzles and solutions. The book is full of unobtrusive but clever (okay, perhaps groan-worthy) details. These lift the noir atmosphere into something a little lighter without turning cliche. I think this is a great new book, and look forward to future novels from Mr. Berry.

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