All people are detectives in their dreams. Trenchcoats and fedoras may not be involved, but the setup is there; instead of taking on clients, sleepers simply close their eyes to enter a world of mysteries, full of twists, turns, and backward-speaking midgets. All that world needs is the correct cipher to unlock its secrets, but it seems like the alarm clock always goes off with the answers still just out of reach. “Never sleep” is the motto of the agency that employs Charles Unwin, the hero of The Manual Of Detection, but as Unwin soon discovers, true watchfulness has its price; at least in dreams, there’s always the chance of waking up to a world that makes sense.
Charles is a clerk for the agency’s most famous detective, Travis T. Sivart—until Travis disappeared. Now the former clerk has been abruptly promoted to detective and charged with locating his missing boss. Before he can get his head on straight about what’s happening, he’s discovered his first corpse, gained an assistant, and been given a copy of that most valuable of handbooks, The Manual Of Detection. Charles’s best hope is to find Travis before things get even more complicated, but he stumbles onto a thread that threatens to undermine every case he ever filed, as well as herald the return of Travis’ greatest foe. If only he could keep the people around him from sleepwalking away…
Manual strives for a tone of haunting absurdity, with intermittent success. Many of Berry’s ideas are strong, like the former Siamese twins that dog Charles’ investigations, or the cavernous archives housed in the agency’s basements, where records are kept forever out of the light. But the story is ploddingly episodic, sending readers through a series of clever but disjointed sequences. The writing isn’t good enough to justify the meandering plot, and without urgency or exceptional prose, Manual can be a chore to get through. But it has its moments, and the history Berry constructs around Charles and the conspiracies he stumbles across is convincingly thorough. Manual’s greatest flaw is that it’s lost in the shadow of its influences (Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Dashiell Hammett) without a voice of its own; like most dreams, it’s too much a reflection to last in the daylight.