Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Fleshy characters are all I desire when I need distraction. I want heavy adjectives that knock wetly against my head as I wade through a book. I want a book that sprawls in interesting ways and, even if it’s a fantasy, feels “real.”

So, perhaps I’m just not in the headspace to enjoy Berry’s noirish mistaken identity mystery. Set in a no-name city, the story follows Charles Unwin, a clerk in a monolithic detective agency called simply the Agency who files cases for a star detective. When the detective goes missing and Unwin is suddenly promoted, he decides to investigate his former detective’s disappearance. Pretty standard stuff this is, and though it gets wrapped in layers of fantastic happenings including mass dreaming and giant archivists, the story can’t survive on plot alone.

All we really get of each character is a tic (Unwin won’t relinquish his hat, his secretary is a narcoleptic, a security guard important to the case can’t remember anything) with a few bits of back-story stuck to it. This does not inspire involvement with Unwin, the missing detective or any of the other major characters, so it is quite difficult to stay engaged with the quest or to feel any urgency to return Unwin to his former, dull occupation and life. It doesn’t help that Berry’s dialogue channels the output of an untalented 40s screenwriter, as in this exchange:
“Detective Sivart?” he said.
“Yeah, Charlie,” said the boy.
“I can’t remember the name of this game.”
“It’s an old game,” said the boy. “Older than chess. Older than curse words and shoeshine. Doesn’t matter what you call it, so long as you know how to play. Everyone’s in on it, except one guy, and that guy’s ‘it.’ Okay?”
“Detective Sivart?”
“Yeah, Charlie.”
“I’m ‘it,’ aren’t I?”
“And quick too,” the boy said.

Much of the sense of fun that Berry tries to inject into the book with wacky scenarios is smashed flat by the overwhelming gray of the story. It rains everyday, places and people are described with affectless names, the intimation of oppressive by hints of labyrinth rules of the Agency—I get it, I get it—world building happening here! But without a little red blood, I don’t care.

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