Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection is, frankly, a weird book. It’s complicated in that there are plots inside of conspiracies. There are multiple motives and the characters acting them out are hard to understand. It’s set in a nameless city that’s policed by an Agency of detectives. It’s like being inside a Christie novel, one of those old-style mysteries where the characters’ motives and methods are all a little outlandish and unreal and sometimes it seems like the mysteries happen for their own sake.
Charles Unwin, a clerk at the Agency, finds himself mysteriously prompted to detective with a dead watcher. Before he can get his feet under him, Unwin is investigating a case that gets weirder by the moment. The ending is hugely complicated, with all the mysteries coming together. It’s actually a little hard to keep track of everyone at that point. And it doesn’t help that Unwin has no idea how to be a detective. He’s given the eponymous Manual, but he never has a chance to read it and learn its lessons. Moreover, for a good part of the beginning, Unwin tries to get his promotion reversed because he thinks that his promotion was the result of a clerical error somewhere in the Agency’s chain of command.
At the end, it is revealed that the criminals and the detectives are playing out their roles as agents of anarchy and order (not evil and good). The Agency needs the criminals, or else they would be out of work. The criminals need their organization, the Carnival, to stay organized. I hate to give away the big secret, so I’ll just say that the genesis of Unwin’s mystery is the result of the big bad upsetting the balance between the two, with third and fourth parties trying to restore the balance and sneak in a little revenge. It’s an interesting idea, but I still felt like I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of everyone.