Here is an excellent book, full of whimsy and surrealism (in the truest sense of the word) that doesn’t quite rise to the level of greatness but comes close.
On some level, this book’s strengths are sometimes its weakness. It is a remarkably well plotted book and everything fits together with a magnificent precision but this logic and internal consistency undermine much of the mystery and surrealism that I loved so much. It’s like having a wonderful and strange dream and then waking up and describing it in great detail to your friend or lover. Something magical is lost in the transcription.
Dreams are at the center of the Manual of Detection. The hero of the novel is Charles Unwin, a clerk at the cities largest detective agency who finds himself promoted to detective against his will one morning. Attempting to correct what he assumes must be a mistake, Unwin is drawn into a mystery involving the city’s greatest detective (for whom Unwin clerked and who has recently gone missing), his nemesis and, ultimately, the agency itself. In setting out to solve the mystery, Unwin is assisted by his experience as a clerk, a copy of the titular Manual of Detection and his suddenly quite lucid dreams.
The book within a book conceit is executed brilliantly by Jedediah Berry. The structure of the novel mirrors that of the fictional manual and each chapter starts with some quoted words of wisdom from that work. Berry appropriates the traditional elements of a detective story and takes them in a fantastical direction. While some of the wonder is lost as the story resolves itself logically, it’s impossible not to admire what Berry has accomplished, and the skill with which he has done so. If that word ‘admire’ sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, I’ve done the book a disservice as I liked it quite a lot. If Berry had been able to sustain the level of wonder that pervades a book like Hanah Tinti’s The Good Thief, I would have loved it but I can still recommend The Manual of Detection whole-heartedly.