The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
Published by William Heinemann and Out Now
There are some books that are just an episode in someone’s life and you get a sense that the characters have had a life before the story starts and will after it ends. And then there are some stories where the characters only exist in the story and couldn’t survive without it. The Manual of Detection is one of those stories.
It starts when humble file clerk Charles Unwin changes his usual routine and ends up at the train station. There events change his day-to-day life. He’s promoted, gets a copy of The Manual of Detection and has the task to find his boss, Travis Sivart, a detective at the agency he works, who has mysteriously vanished.
And that’s not the only thing that’s strange. Being a filing clerk at the Agency Charles was limited the fourteenth floor – now he roams the building as well as places far outside his usual route to work as he finds out that Travis Sivart’s most famous cases weren’t actually as solved as people thought they were, which is quite a shock to Charles seeing as he was the person who wrote up the reports and thought he knew all the about them. Even after finding out all he wants to do is clear up the mistake and get his job back.
There is something surreal and a little claustrophobic to the action in The Manual of Detection as the story centres on Agency, the circus and not a lot in between. But it’s such a magical and surreal environment that the world is real enough to the characters and the story has its own internal logic that nothing really spoils the illusion.
I guess if you don’t enjoy the mystery element or the way it’s told you might not get sucked in. But it really is cleverly done. The 18 chapters are named after the 18 chapters of the fictional Manual of Detection and they mirror the title. And Berry tells it in such a way that each layer unfolds and the mystery deepends before it even begins to make sense.
The pacing allows us, the reader, and Charles, as the main character, to find out what’s going on roughly the same time so the naive quality of a character whose life is turned upside down and changes forever is sympathetic as well as cleverly pitched.
As this is a stylised story it isn’t challenging in the sense that the reader can solve the mystery as a lot of the exploration and revelations are more point of enjoyment rather than puzzles that are satisfying to solve.
Overall, I’m glad I’ve read a story that is not only self-contained but has a strong sense of itself and does what it sets out to do. Solve the mystery of Travis Sivart’s disappearance and explain why a lowly filing clerk is the only person who can find him.
I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what Jedediah Berry conjures up next.