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The Manual of Detection | The Guardian

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  • The Manual of Detection | The Guardian

    This is the uncut version of my Guardian review from last Saturday --

    The Manual of Detection
    by Jedediah Berry
    Heinemann, 279pp
    £14.99

    ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­IF RURAL NOSTALGIA fuels the continuing appeal of Trollope or Tolkien then its equivalent is an urban nostalgia most commonly found in Dickens pastiches like Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke, Holly Black’s gritty fairy stories and the steampunk genre. These days, you can barely pick up a speculative fantasy book without finding a zeppelin or a steam-robot on the cover. Even if the word doesn’t really describe the genre very accurately, steampunk rules.
    Containing few punks and a good many posh ladies and gents, most of these stories are better described as ‘steam operas.’ The Manual of Detection formalizes many of the genre’s themes and includes a dash of cyberpunk noir. Cyberpunks were what the likes of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson called themselves, when first signalling their break with conventional sf.
    What identified cyberpunk was a sophisticated interest in current events, a guess that the Pacific Rim might soon become the centre of world politics, a keen curiosity about the possibilities of post-PC international culture and a love of noir detective fiction with its tough melancholy and gloomy cityscapes. Characteristically cyberpunk revivified the noir thriller and might as easily be considered a development of the mystery as science fiction. The movement broke up naturally and its members went their own ways, seeking further virgin turf as their iconography and language became widely imitated. Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine was an early example of cyberpunk merging into steampunk, proposing a Victorian world with Babbage computers. And airships. Airships are also in The Golden Compass and Watchmen, among other recent movies. They signify you are in an ‘alternate reality’.
    Today, we not only have whole interminable series of steampunk books, but dozens of games. Increasingly steampunk themes turn up in fashion where people look back to Victorian technology for inspiration. You can buy a customized brass and mahogany conversion set which will make your computer look like Queen Victoria’s very own laptop. You can make your mobile seem as if it were pinched from the bowels of Nemo’s Nautilus. No doubt there’s a place where you can have your Civic modified to resemble a 1920s Bentley tourer. Steampunk reached its final burst of brilliant deliquescence with Pynchon’s Against the Day and his Airship Boys. But, once the wide world of fashion gets hold of an idea, it can only survive through knowing irony. Its tools, its icons, its angle of attack are absorbed into the cultural mainstream. The genre has started to write about itself, the way Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles addressed the Western.
    A fair distance from its original intentions, steampunk no longer examines context and history but now looks ironically at its own roots, its own tropes and clichés. Thankfully it does it in a book as good as The Manual of Detection. Jedediah Berry has an ear well-tuned to the styles of the detective story from Holmes to Spade and can reproduce atmosphere with loving skill.
    The steam and deco city in which this mystery is set is never named. It has brooding skyscrapers. It’s always raining. There appears to be no public authority save the monumental, strictly stratified Detective Agency where Charles Unwin works as a clerk, filing and writing up reports for the sleuth to whom he’s assigned, in this case the legendary Travis Sivart, famous for solving cases like The Oldest Murdered Man and The Man Who Stole November Twelth. He’s fascinated by a woman he’s seen at Central Terminal station where he’s suddenly and reluctantly recruited by a detective. Someone is murdered. A brooding sense of doom dogs him as he reluctantly uncovers not only a new and terrifying case but realizes that many earlier famous cases were not properly solved. In a world suddenly populated by somnambulists, everyone has their alarm clock stolen. The whole city is dreaming or, like Unwin’s plucky girl assistant, falling asleep at odd times. Even the hallowed Agency Manual, as Unwin discovers, contains mysteries. He encounters a femme fatale who might be on his side; a nightclub singer, two sinister former Siamese twins who drive a gaudy steam-truck; a malevolent carnival proprietor ruling over the remains of his travelling show; a thieves’ kitchen. Larger threats and mysteries increase. When the city wakes, a day has been stolen from its calendar. What’s the motive ? The whole order of things is upset. Unwin reluctantly becomes intrigued.
    Helped by an old museum guard, his plucky girl assistant (every detective is issued with one) and a number of others with ambiguous motives and, taking his life and sanity in his hands, Unwin proves a dogged investigator. Soon, he is forced to question the truth of the Manual itself. Despite the grim, unnamed city where Unwin constantly receives contradictory or absurd instructions, this engrossing book isn’t at all like Kafka. By the end almost too many mysteries are explained.
    And then the sun comes out.
    __________________________________________________ __________
    Worth mentioning here is Albertopolis Disparu, a booklet just issued by the Science Museum. It is by Tony White, recently the Science Museum’s writer in residence. It’s most wonderful when describing the secret city spread over the roofs of the South Kensington museums.


    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
    The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
    Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
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  • #2
    Deliquescence, eh? Nice. Very nice.
    sigpic

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    • #3
      Why do you always have to be right?

      I started reading, and realized that the genre is being overdone, no matter how much fun it is.

      I read "Boneshaker". Not badly crafted, but the story had more holes in it than five pounds of gorgonzola, and it was predictable, to boot.

      A few jinks in the plot kept me guessing, time to time, and it was an entertaining book to read, but too many conventions....nobody even remotely sane was going to try to power a hydrogen airship by steam(hiss? BOOM?)and besides, steam jets lack the power-there were actually some steam powered aircraft in the early days, none were jets...and just where did the gas come from?

      Airships were a tricky proposition at best, fragile and somewhat willful things-but, oh, so elegant!

      Again you have hit the nail on the head(aren't you ashamed! spoilsport!)

      Great review!

      Comment


      • #4
        Toby Jones is reading The Manual of Detection in five parts this week on BBC Radio 4 Extra:

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01q0hvz/episodes/guide
        1. The Missing Detective - Unexpectedly promoted after his boss's disappearance, Charles Unwin begins his search.
        2. The Museum Coffin - Investigator Charles Unwin finds his boss's disappearance is linked to a mystery corpse.
        3. A Surfeit of Alarm Clocks - Charles Unwin discovers his problems might be solved by reading chapter 18 of the manual.
        4. The City Archive - Unwin's only hope is to get to the archives.
        5. Chapter 18 - Discovering why his boss Sivart disappeared, Unwin plots how to save him.
        _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
        _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
        _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
        _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

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        • #5
          Heard a bit of this by sheer luck, knowing nothing of it beforehand.
          Liked what I heard.

          Comment


          • #6
            Right towards the end of the story (so, part 5 above I think (but could be 4)) there's a mention of how the two antagonists Unwin finds himself up against represent 'Order' and 'Disorder' respectively and that Unwin has been selected to restore the 'Balance' between them.

            I don't know if that's a deliberate Moorcockian reference on the part of Jedediah Berry or just one of those odd coincidences that crops up from time to time in fiction.
            _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
            _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
            _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
            _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

            Comment


            • #7
              The law/chaos conflict is primal.

              Zealasney's great Amber books really hinge on the bipolar nature of life and reality. We see that Corwin has gotten a child upon the .Hell Maid Lintra, but has no knowledge of doing it. A likely story!.

              When Corwin left, the whole series went to Hell.


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              • #8
                btw, I'm reading "The Manual of Detection right now.

                Kafkaesque, yes, but unsatisfying, so far. Metafiction is so difficult to write well. "The Singing Detective" it is not.

                At least not yet.......

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