Imagine a city with a rather strange detective agency. There are the watchers, who meet the clients, the detectives who investigate, and the clerks, who make the detective’s notes into tidy little reports. The clerks and the detectives are never allowed to meet. As well there are the archives of the agency, including one of mysteries, one of solutions, and one of… well that’s sort of the secret at the heart of the book, so I can’t really tell you.
Charles Unwin is the clerk to the best detective in the agency, Travis Sivart, but when Sivart goes missing, Charles is promoted to detective and gets his office. Unwin really doesn’t want to be involved with this sort of thing. He feels that he’d be best as a clerk, so he decides that his first and last case should be to find Sivart and get him back on the job. Things aren’t that easy though. He’s dreamt that Sivart was in his bathtub and told him to look at chapter 18 of the manual, but it’s non-existent in his copy. He gets a secretary to help him with his work, but she’s narcoleptic and always falls asleep. He goes to meet his watcher, but discovers him dead. To top it all off, as Unwin investigates he discovers that Sivart’s three greatest cases: The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, The Oldest Murdered Man and The Man Who Stole November Twelfth, were undeniably solved completely wrong.
The book is surreal and strange and it drew me into its odd little world. There’s a cast of wild characters including the separated Siamese twin gangsters, Jasper and Josiah Rook, who never sleep and Edwin Moore, the museum guard who tries to forget everything he hears. There are also some incredibly beautiful odd moments, like crowds of sleepwalkers arriving at a grand mansion and gambling away their alarm clocks, and the man who types down everything everyone says. The revelations of the story make sense in the logic of this book, and the climax is genius and genuinely thrilling.
I have a soft spot in my heart for both surrealism and mysteries so I loved this book, especially Unwin and his discomfort with being a detective. His love for logic and reason has made him cut out parts of Sivart’s reports, so the cases have only one obvious answer. However, once he learns how wrong the solutions are, he realizes that he’s probably the only one with all the information, and that his need for reason has made him lose sight of the irrational nature of life. The overarching theme of the book is that mystery is necessary, and that logic can be restrictive and even wrong. The facts may speak for themselves, but they can be lying.