‘If you’re wearing a hat, hang on to it’ – The Book of Detection by Jedediah Berry

jebediahbIf you’re wearing a hat, hang on to it. Charles Unwin is a clerk. His job is to write up the case notes of a detective called Travis Sivart. He’s done this – the writing of case notes, the making just so – for twenty years or thereabouts. When we meet him, he is stepping outside of the confines of his ordered life. He’s seen a woman, you see, a woman in a plaid coat, in the train station and he has something of a crush on her. Each morning, he makes his way down to the train station at the same time in order to catch a glimpse of her as she waits for someone, someone who never comes, to step off the train. It is here, while he is waiting, that he is approached by a detective who informs him that he has been promoted, from clerk to detective. Feeling from the outset that the promotion is something that cannot be (he is, after all, a clerk), Unwin is drawn into a mystery that gradually reveals all of his work of the last 20 years to have been a sham.

Sivart has gone missing, you see. Unwin has to find him and, in looking, repeatedly finds himself brought up against some of Sivart’s most celebrated cases (such as the case of the Oldest Murdered Man or the case of The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker) – cases Unwin had long felt were dispatched that Sivart’s disappearance forces to unravel, gradually. Flouting protocol (in a way that you know causes him problems), Unwin travels up to the 40th floor to converse with a guy called Lamech, a Watcher by profession who signed the memo that elevated Unwin from clerk to detective – except Lamech is dead and Unwin, forced by a knock on the door to pretend to be Lamech, agrees to take a case to help a woman who can’t sleep, who wakes each morning with the window open, herself covered in roses. Fleeing the corpse, Unwin makes his way to his new (and Sivart’s old) office where he is introduced to his new assistant (a wiley narcoleptic with suspicious loyalties called Emily), and uses Sivart’s old typewriter ribbon to start tracking the great detective (reading the letters off the ribbon to his assistant, they get to read the last communique Sivart ever wrote). And so Unwin travels, from the office to the Municipal Museum, from the Municipal Museum to a seedy bar called the Forty Winks, from the Forty Winks to a large house frequented by sleepwalkers dragging large sacks of alarm clocks…

If you haven’t guessed it yet, the marvellously named Jedediah Berry’s debut novel The Manual of Detection is a twisty-turny, fantastical steampunk epic, awash with steam cars, umbrellas, grumpy detectives, evil science villains (capable of stealing days from the calendar and infiltrating the dreams of a city), bicycles, car chases, somnambulism, circuses and countless other marvellous and bewildering things. The circus, for example, is populated by ‘scowling roustabouts, disgruntled clowns, arthritic acrobats… They were a crooked cabal, the progeny of a crooked line – plotters, scoundrels and thieves, each one.’

The long and short of the novel is that there is a villain called Hoffman (Sivart’s arch nemesis, thought to be long-dead), a magical, hypnotic temptress known as Cleopatra Greenwood (who has a tendency to play both sides off against each other), some evil twins, and a man known as the Overseer (who is responsible for the Agency where Unwin and Sivart and the rest of them work) around whom the novel twists and twists and twists. To paraphrase Berry himself, ‘the world goes to shambles in the murkey corners of the night‘ – by the end of things, ‘A hat is a snake is a lamp is a child is an insect is a clothesline hung with telephones.’

The back of the proof compares Berry to Douglas Adams, Raymond Chandler, Terry Gilliam, Borges, David Lynch and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (in a case of the greatest name-dropping overload a proof has ever seen, I think) – and there is some truth to each of these (if you maybe added in a bit of Paul Auster, Kafka and Jeff VanderMeer). Arguably the novel lacks a bit of clarity as you proceed (with Unwin walking out of one dream and into another, Berry writes, ‘their route along the worn brick pathways of Lamech’s dreaming mind grew ever more strange and circuitous… They ducked beneath rusting fire escapes, passed through tunnels that smelled of algae and damp earth, hopped gutters brimming with filth… Twice they crossed deep ravines on makeshift bridges of steel grating…’ which gives way to Unwin dreaming ‘of Lamech’s dream of Hoffman’s dream of Sivart’s dream’), and this impacts ever so slightly on the heart of the thing (because you want to care but it’s difficult when you’re trying to work out the who and the where and the what) but what The Book of Detection does do is set up Jedediah Berry as a name you might want to keep an eye on in the coming weeks and months and years.

Any Cop?: The Manual of Detection is a really promising debut. Berry could be on a par with a writer like Jonathan Lethem two or three books from now…

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