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The Manual of Detection, By Jedediah Berry

Joy Lo Dico
Sunday 20 June 2010 00:00 BST

Jedediah Berry's first novel is a firecracker of an old-fashioned detective story, done steampunk style. The story centres on Charles Unwin, a quiet, methodical clerk whose job is to write up and file the reports of Travis Sivart, the dashing, cigar-smoking detective to whom he is assigned at "The Agency". Then Sivart disappears, Unwin is unexpectedly promoted to the detective's job, and when he goes to complain to the chief of staff that the promotion must be a mistake, he finds his boss dead in his chair with a mysterious record playing.

Unwin reluctantly decides that the only way to rectify what must surely be a paperwork error is to search for Sivart, get him reinstated and go back to the quiet life of a clerk. But it's not that simple and his journey leads him to the discovery that the great cases that Sivart claimed to have solved – cases with evocative names such as "The Oldest Murdered Man" and "The Three Deaths of Colonel Barker" – were a sham, and there is a far bigger game afoot.

Though time and location are never specified, The Manual of Detection has the feel of a novel set in an early 20th-century US coastal city, and the landscape is rich with details of railway stations, rainy alleyways and abandoned hill-top mansions inhabited by shadowy criminals, alluring, duplicitous women and circus freaks.

Berry's novel describes a complex battle between chaos and order; the dark forces of the carnival on the other side of town versus the hierarchical and paperclip-heavy detective agency. But it is also a novel about the human mind and the power of the subconscious in sleep to subvert the order of waking hours. The combination of detective novel, fantasy and psychological drama is seamless, and it is a page-turner right through to its extraordinary ending.

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