I loved this book despite a few quibbles. It relates what happens to Charles Unwin when he is unexpectedly promoted from clerk to detective of a mysterious agency, and finds himself rather unwillingly investigating the disappearance of Travis T. Sivart, the operative for whom he served as the clerk. In typical noir fashion, it’s soon clear that it’s not clear who — if anyone — Unwin can trust. Even the copy of the The Manual of Detection he receives is missing the crucial eighteenth chapter.
I was primarily bothered by details of tone. Character names like Unwin, Pith, Screed and Travis T. Sivart (maybe he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going?) seem chosen either for humorous or allegorical effect. Those names, coupled with some early scene-setting strikingly reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil gave me misgivings that The Manual of Detection would either be a madcap fantasy à la Jasper Fforde or a derivative Orwellian/Kafka-esque exercise. It’s neither of those. I suppose it would be possible to read some aspects of The Manual of Detection as symbolic of commercial and governmental encroachment on privacy, but I’m inclined to read the novel at face value — a noirish detective story with some fantastic or magical realist aspects, that happens to be set in a surreal environment.
Be that as it may, after the first few chapters I was thoroughly captivated and quit worrying about whether character names were sometimes goofy. Berry displays a deep familiarity with the classic noir tropes and a nice sense of which ones to honor and which to subvert. His prose is marvelously suited to the book — spare, almost reportorial, enlivened by carefully positioned adjectives. I can well believe Berry spent hours polishing his deceptively simple sentences. When Unwin must revisit some of Sivart’s old case files, on the other hand, they recall Chandler’s cynical protagonists and the offbeat metaphors that define the typical first-person noir narrative voice (“I was about as useful as a jack-in-the-box with his lid glued shut,” is how he describes his lack of double-jointed ability to slip out of restraints).
Director Richard Linklater may be done making movies with dream-like themes, but if there are alternate universes there must somewhere be one where Linklater directs an animated adaption of The Manual of Dectection in a style similar to Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and I really hope it’s this one. Sylvain Chomet (of The Triplets of Belleville) could probably do it justice, too.
I also can’t discuss this book without mention how lovely the physical design of Penguin Press’s hardcover is — The Manual of Detection that exists inside the novel is described in some detail, and the real book matches the description, gold foil “Never Sleeping” logo and all. The poor marketing puff and pull quotes are relegated to the endpapers.
needs more demons? nope.