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Friday, March 5, 2010

The Manual of Detection

Jedediah Berry shows intriguing promise in this detective story tinged with magical realism, but eventually the debut author lets the bizarre elements of his story surpass his ability to corral them into a sustainable narrative.

The novel is set in an unnamed city where the dutiful but pathetic Charles Unwin labors as a clerk for a Detective Agency, handling the cases of the renowned Travis T. Sivart, officiously recording the details and titling each adventure imaginatively (The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker; The Man Who Stole November 12th). As the book starts, Unwin is unexpectedly, and undeservedly, promoted to detective. Knowing this must be a mistake he sets out to correct it, but as he does so he becomes inextricably involved in the mystery of Sivart's disappearance and the death of one of the Agency's "watchers", shadowy figures supervising the detectives.

For awhile, the misadventures of the bumbling new detective, as he tries to figure out how to proceed and who he can trust based on the advice of the reference volume of the title, make for an interesting read. Unwin seems like someone Peter Sellers might have played in a movie. The details of Sivart's old cases are also exceptionally well-written and humorous.

It is here that the novel takes it's first dip into the realm of the unusual. We're introduced to the Agency's arch-nemesis Enoch Hoffmann, a carnival magician famed for his mastery of impersonation. Hoffmann somehow managed to get the entire city except Sivart to believe that it was November 13th instead of the 12th.

It's an intriguing premise, but in explaining it Berry gets caught up in a byzantine explanation of "dream detection." That's right: Hoffmann can insert himself into people's dreams. What's more, the watchers at the Agency can do it too! And they can run into each other in other people's dreams while they're both asleep, and things they do in dreams have real world consequences! And Hoffmann's new plan involves stealing all the alarm clocks in town so he can keep everyone asleep long enough to take total control!

If that sounds cool to you, well than hell, have at it, and try to decipher what the hell is going on as Berry tries to write himself out of an impossible mess. As the rules get more complex, and the characters and settings more tritely bizarre, you'll probably find yourself caring less and less about the solution and just hoping for the end. The fun of the first half is gone, and the book becomes a slog. It gets 4.9 out of 10, even it's early promise can't justify pushing this over 5.

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