Thursday, July 16, 2009

JD's Take: Manual of Detection (Jedediah Berry)

I actually picked this book up in the mystery section of all places, though it could comfortably hang out in the seedy hive of the fantasy section as well. Actually, it could probably dress up nice and at least stroll through the "Fiction" section, as it certainly has a literary* character to it. It is Berry's first novel, though he has published short stories before and he is an editor at Small Beer Press (making me want to read the stack of $1 books I ordered from them rather more than I did).

So. Let me set the scene. The story is set in the city, an unnamed noir style metropolis dominated by a monolithic building housing the Agency. The city is dark, and rainy, dirty and dismal, and structured. The city honestly feels more like Bas Lag than Metropolis. There is nothing openly fantastic about it, but the people are too structured, too neurotic, too obviously and subtly broken to be entirely mundane.

Charles Unwin is a orderly man, a clerk by trade, and the best in the business. His job is to chronicle the cases of Detective Sivart, a legendary figure who is a cross between Holmes (in stature) and Sam Spade (in attitude). Our story starts as Unwin is suddenly promoted to the rank of detective and his life spirals rapidly outside of his ability to cope. He meets a cast of characters feel like they are in color against the black and white of their world. They are broken, strange, intriguing. Many would not be out of place in a Dick Tracy story, and others feel lifted straight out of Chinatown. Unwin is forced to stretch outside his comfort zone (a zone that is 7 blocks long and 14 stories high), his only strong motivation to make sense of his life and go back to the way things were.

As details emerge about cases past and present, they are filled with fantastic elements. I'm not talking dragons and high magic though... one of the cases that is often referenced in the story quite literally focuses on the theft of November 11th, a Tuesday. Certainly the book is imaginative, along with being well written, well plotted, and engrossing. There are weak points, perhaps, in the resolution though that is largely a matter of taste I think. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys noir, urban and weird fantasy, and/or great writing in general. Honestly, it's a shame that the book is in the mystery section, because it doesn't read or play out like a mystery, and true fans of the genre will probably be disapointed. There are no clever clues for you to work out while you pretend to work, and the butler most certainly did not do it. The biggest mystery is figuring out what exactly "it" is that was done.

* Used in the sense that it plays with language, and at time flirts with poetry. There were paragraphs I stopped and read aloud, just for the pleasure of doing so.

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