Noir Fantasy: My New Favourite Subgenre

by Arthur B

Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection melds Chandleresque crime and Chesterton-inspired fantasy and comes up with a whole new flavour.
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Jedediah Berry's debut novel, The Manual of Detection, is riddled with nostalgia. Taking its aesthetic and setting mainly from hardboiled detective fiction along the lines of Dashiell Hammett, it's a celebration of a subgenre of detective fiction which progress has left behind. The dawn of the Internet, mobile phones, and CCTV, as well as nearly a century of social change, mean that although it is still possible to write stories about a lone, honest detective trying to do what's right in a corrupt and decadent world, a good many of the tropes and situations that used to define the hardboiled genre by and large can't be applied to modern-day stories. However, by taking the tropes of Hammett and Chandler and applying them to a fantastic situation, Berry is able to get sufficient distance from particular times and places to enable him to ease off on the topicality that Hammett and Chandler brought to the table and wax philosophical instead.

Make no mistake about it, The Manual of Detection is a fantasy novel. It is not a traditional high-fantasy novel set in world similar to a time period in Earth's history, and nor is it a modern-day fantasy along the lines of Tim Powers or Buffy, in which fantastic elements exist a world that is otherwise nigh-identical to present-day Earth. Rather, it is set in an unnamed rain-slicked coastal US city, in an unspecified time period that's probably somewhere between the 1930s and 1950s, and centres around Charles Unwin, a humble clerk from an unnamed, monolithic detective agency. Unwin's main duty is editing and filing the case notes provided by his assigned detective, Travis Sivart, whom he has never personally met due to the Agency's byzantine and mysterious internal policies. After dreaming of a strange encounter with Sivart, Unwin discovers Sivart has disappeared, and that he has been mysteriously promoted to the rank of detective - a promotion which has no precedent in the annals of the Agency. Convinced that this is a terrible mistake, Unwin goes to meet with Sivart's immediate superior, the Watcher Lamech, only to find that Lamech has been murdered; reluctantly investigating Sivart's disappearance (without quite being instructed to in so many words) he finds that old adversaries of Sivart such as the sinister magician Enoch Hoffmann and the femme fatale Cleo Greenwood, have returned to town.

And when he discovers that some of Sivart's most famous cases, such as The Oldest Murdered Man and The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, were never correctly solved, things get really strange. Soon enough Unwin finds himself infiltrating a subconscious conspiracy of sleepwalkers, learns of the hidden arts of dream-detection, and discovers that the Agency - and Hoffmann's sinister criminal Carnival that acts as its mirror image - are merely the latest incarnations of two sides in an eternal battle between law and chaos, conscious and subconscious, waking life and dream. Unwin has to unravel it all if he's to stop a cataclysm whose seeds lie in the distant past, the key to which lies in Sivart's greatest case - The Man Who Stole November 12th. And he's guided only by his battered copy of The Manual of Detection, the Agency's guidebook for its detectives.

This is precisely as awesome as it sounds. Unwin is introduced to us as an unimaginative and unambitious pen-pusher, who only wishes to find Sivart so that he can go back to his old job; his reluctant transformation into a true detective is, whilst unlikely, entirely believable, and Berry handles the classic hardboiled tropes with skill. By adding the fantastic elements to the story bit by bit Berry allows himself time to establish them and make them seem like natural elements of the story before he brings in the next one. It's an approach not entirely unlike that GK Chesterton took with The Man Who Was Thursday, a story which begins as a spy thriller and finishes in the court of the Almighty. And whilst a cosmic conflict between Law and Chaos is a well-worn fantasy trope, dating back to Poul Anderson, and the idea of making sure that both Law and Chaos are unappealing choices and that a balance between the two is necessary likewise dates back to Michael Moorcock, it's rare to see these themes handled so adeptly. In particular, I like the fact that Berry is able to make Law seem unquestionably on the side of right and Chaos unquestionably evil at the beginning, and then by the end manages to make both of them seem capable of both great good and great evil to an equal extent - this is something Michael Moorcock frequently attempted with his stories, but often wasn't quite able to balance just right.

A confident novel, with less than 300 pages, telling a self-contained story that's entirely complete by the end - what more could you want from a fantasy novel? And from an author's debut as well! I predict great things from Mr Berry and will be watching him like a hawk. My only disappointment with The Manual of Detection has nothing to do with the story itself - it's the fact that certain ignorant persons seem to be describing it as steampunk, when not only is steampunk an irritating aesthetic that's become about as overexposed as zombies these days, but also The Manual of Detection comprises precisely none of the defining features of steampunk. Nobody could mistake the setting for a mock-Victorian one, and nobody could delude themselves into thinking there's any steam-driven technology in the story aside from a few trains, unless they were being deliberately moronic as part of an attempt to shoehorn as many works into the steampunk category as possible regardless of whether or not it even slightly makes sense to call them "steampunk". I'm talking to you, Michael Moorcock.
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Comments (go to latest)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 00:02 on 2010-03-12
Um...wow...I just finished this book. Yesterday night.

...
...
...

GET OUT OF MY HEAD, ARTHUR!!!

I have to run now, so I'll say something deeply insightful tomorrow.
Arthur B at 00:47 on 2010-03-12
"Never Sleeping", Al. ;)
Rami at 01:25 on 2010-03-12
This sounds utterly brilliant *adds to Amazon wishlist*
Frank at 07:27 on 2010-03-12
I placed a hold on it at my library which shelves it in the mystery section.

Are there any airships in it? Maybe that's how Mr Moorcock (wow, really?) became confused.
Arthur B at 10:15 on 2010-03-12
I'm pretty sure there aren't any airships in it.

At least, there aren't any that play a sufficiently significant part that I remember them. And even if there were any, I would say that their presence wouldn't make it steampunk or even alternate history - there's nothing counterfactual about having airships bobbing about in the 1930s.
Sister Magpie at 16:57 on 2010-03-12
Wow! Writing this one down...
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 18:12 on 2010-03-13
No, there are no airships, and the closest the book gets to stereotypical steampunk is with the giant steam-powered truck two of the antagonists drive. I suppose you could claim it as "steampunk" by saying it does for the interwar period what traditional steampunk does for late Victoriana/Edwardiana, but that would just broaden the definition so as to make it meaningless.

Personally, I found the Manual to be one of the few books I would happily describe as "Kafkaesque." It's a term that's thrown around a lot, but Berry actually manages recapture that sense of bureaucracy as an self-contained ecosystem and of that special type of palpable menace exuded by unknowable higher authority that drives Kafka's best work. (He avoids Kafka's tendency to destroy his protagonists at the end, but I guess that's not for everyone). At any rate, it's convinced me to make another attempt at The Trial.
Arthur B at 20:32 on 2010-03-13
I'm reasonably sure, in fact, that since it originated as part of a carnival procession the steam-powered truck in question is in fact one of these.

Certainly, the fact that it's steam-powered seems to be an oddity - I don't remember that any of the conventional cars are described as steam-powered, which (if this really were steampunk) would surely be the norm.

Additionally, I don't think "interwarpunk" would work because the really striking counterfactual elements to the story aren't SFnal in the slightest. The secret art of dream detection, although the Agency exploits it using pseudotechnological jargon, is pretty clearly meant to be magical. Part of the point of steampunk/Elizabethanpunk/all those other words which misuse "-punk" is that they're a kind of alternate history which, ideally, uses alternative technologies which might conceivably have been developed at the time, whereas dream detection comes completely out of left field.
Shim at 22:56 on 2010-03-13
That sounds pretty good. I'll look out for it. It sounds a bit Jasper Fforde as well, in terms of the casual interweaving of total oddness.

While I'm at it, I'll see your noir fantasy and raise you one comic noir fantasy.
Arthur B at 23:00 on 2010-03-13
I remember being very, very unimpressed with Thraxas. It felt like substandard Chandler being written by substandard Pratchett. :(
Shim at 09:22 on 2010-03-14
Really? I'm very fond of them. Never mind.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 13:20 on 2010-03-16
Huh. I never read the steam truck as a traction engine, but then my idea of traction engines comes wholly from the works of the Rev. W. Awdry, which doesn't fit in an interwar city. I always just saw it as a sort of dump truck/flatbed truck-looking thing that just inexplicably ran on steam.

Anyway, steampunk has never been that interested in the realism of the technology. If that was true, all difference engines would operate at a few steps below an ENIAC rather than being indistinguishable from modern computers.
Arthur B at 13:31 on 2010-03-16
Yes, but there's a difference between unrealistic in the Star Trek sense and unrealistic in the fantasy sense. Star Trek takes care to remain in the less realistic end of the SF camp rather than skipping over to fantasy by offering flippant pseudoscientific technobabble to explain how its technologies work; steampunk often does the same, when it doesn't just say "It's like a difference engine, only much bigger and that's why you can play Quake on it." Whereas The Manual of Detection not only avoids giving even the flimsiest of technologically-minded explanations of how dream detection works, but more or less explicitly says that it's a survival of an ancient shamanic tradition dating back to the dawn of man. It's a product of a mystical worldview, not a scientific or pseudoscientific one.
Sonia Mitchell at 21:52 on 2010-03-16
Tangentially, it's just occurred to me for the first time that I may have grown up with an abnormal amount of traction engines in my life. Huh.

The book sounds interesting though.
Sister Magpie at 19:50 on 2010-04-09
Just had to come back and thank you again for this recommendation. I just finished it and wow, it really is a book unlike anything else. Not steampunk, I wouldn't say. It's got a very different feel to it.
Arthur B at 20:03 on 2010-04-09
I am glad to be of service. :)
Frank at 06:31 on 2010-04-27
Whereas The Manual of Detection not only avoids giving even the flimsiest of technologically-minded explanations of how dream detection works, but more or less explicitly says that it's a survival of an ancient shamanic tradition dating back to the dawn of man. It's a product of a mystical worldview, not a scientific or pseudoscientific one.


Thanks for this book, Arthur. I finished a few nights ago and have been thinking about it since as well as recommending it.

To your blockquote... I have not read any steampunk but I've seen some movies :)

Dream detection may have some mystical history but apparently those detected dreams can be cataloged and viewed later by listening to analog records. And then there's the steam truck that's already been addressed.
As for late 19th century, what about the bowler hats and carousel?

So maybe the steampunk is hinted at, a hotwaterMC5. Or maybe it's something a little bit different but still kind of similar, a watervapornewwave perhaps. I really don't know or care, but it sure was a good read. Thanks again!
Arthur B at 07:41 on 2010-04-27
As for late 19th century, what about the bowler hats and carousel?

Still, like vinyl records, very much in style in the 1920s/1930s. Whereas the sort of fiction the agency is modelled on (Hammett/Chandler) didn't even exist until the 1920s.
Frank at 14:51 on 2010-04-27
But disc records were invented in the late 19th century. TMoD has Unwin going down to Third Archive to be able to listen to it which gave me the impression that record players are rare unlike the 20s/30s where they were more common in households. Of course we only see Unwin's apartment and Cleo's cabin, so that's not a lot to go on.

Maybe Berry brings his modeled detective agency to the late 19th century to season the meat of his noir with some steampunk salt.
Frank at 15:14 on 2010-04-27
So I just read this review from the New Yorker.

I didn't get the nine eleven allegory at all and still don't. If it's there, Berry does a great job of not berating his readers with it.

Arthur B at 15:20 on 2010-04-27
TMoD has Unwin going down to Third Archive to be able to listen to it which gave me the impression that record players are rare unlike the 20s/30s where they were more common in households.

Then you've forgotten something. When Unwin is talking to Cleo in her hotel room he strolls over to the hotel-provided record player and slaps on the disc. (If you remember, it just sounds like pigeons cooing.) He needs to go down to the Third Archive to play the record because the Third Archive has the equipment that lets him enter the dream - ordinary record players don't cut it. The idea that record players are common enough to be a standard feature of hotel rooms but expensive enough that Unwin doesn't have one at home pretty much places it in the 1920s/1930s for me.

Also, there are things like payphones in diners which feel far more 1920s/1930s than Victorian.

Also also, the steam truck (whether or not it's a traction engine) is pretty clearly a highly atypical artefact in the setting - the very fact that Unwin notes that it is a steam truck but doesn't refer to all the cars and taxis as "steam cars" or "steam taxis" suggest it is unusual rather than the norm.
Arthur B at 15:27 on 2010-04-27
(Oh, yeah, and I'm pretty sure there's mention of the Forty Winks Bar having a radio, and if the book were pre-1920 there wouldn't actually be any radio stations in the US for that thing to receive...)
Arthur B at 15:34 on 2010-04-27
Sorry to triple post, but I just saw the New Yorker review.

What?

As far as I can work out the reviewer has assumed it's a 9/11 allegory because towards the end a bomb goes off in a tower. Even though (except in the world 9/11 Truthers) no bombs went off in the Twin Towers on 9/11. And the tower in question is singular, lacking in a twin. And if I remember right it doesn't collapse.

I mean, there's a Law vs. Chaos conflict there which arguably has featured in some 9-11/War On Terror-influenced fiction (such as, for example, The Dark Knight), but it's closer to Poul Anderson/Michael Moorcock cosmological conflicts than clash of civilisation nonsense.
Arthur B at 12:59 on 2010-06-02
Q-q-q-quadpost...

Thanks to Niall's recent playpen post for leading me to the discovery that The Manual of Detection has won the Hammett prize.
Jamie Johnston at 16:49 on 2010-08-03
Finally got around to reading this and I thoroughly enjoyed it, so add me to the vote of thanks for the recommendation! Also I feel quite smug to see on re-reading the review that it's similar to a Chesterton story because I felt like it was quite Chestertonish but wasn't entirely sure why I felt that (I haven't read The man who was Thursday). I think it was just the sort of jovial tone and the little-man-in-a-big-structure protagonist. Another thing it reminded me of was Terry Gilliam films, especially Brazil.

I agree that it doesn't seem remotely steampunk from what I know of the latter, and in fact it feels very firmly whatever-that-period-when-noir-detectives-happen-is. As you say, it isn't Buffy-style 'urban' or 'contemporary' fantasy because it seems to be a rule of that sub-genre that the world appears exactly as it historically was or currently is but there are hidden fantastical things going on that the lone hero (or the small group of heroes) stumbles into. But there probably should be a term for the sort of fantasy that's set in a world pretty similar to our own but with fantastical elements that are out in the open and generally accepted, if only because long-running works of contemporary fantasy (like Buffy) often turn into this as the general public becomes increasingly aware of the fantastical stuff going on.*

In fact that's pretty much exactly what the backstory of The manual of detection is. [Spoiler warning, but I'm not going to use the tags because I think most people who are reading this will have read the book already.] As far as we know, twenty or thirty years ago the city was exactly like any turn-of-the-century US city in real reality, until the carnival turns up and Cleo ends up teaching Arthur to do dream-detection and so his small-time PI agency turns into a city-dominating monolith whose enormous power is largely based on its use of dream-detection, and at the same time Hoffmann takes over the carnival and uses the same dream-powers to become a supervillain. And indeed in a sense the book almost fits the 'contemporary fantasy' sub-genre because there isn't actually anything fantastical about the city as far as its general populace knows, and the hero actually does stumble into the fantastical stuff that has remained hidden from everyone else. It's just that the world he starts from isn't quite the historical early twentieth century because the city has this strange Agency and whatnot. But the things that make it differ from a historical city aren't actually fantastical as far as most people who live in it are aware. So it's kind of like an alternate-history book that turns out to be a fantasy book, or a contemporary fantasy nested within an alternate-history setting.

And actually that's a nice thing about it, because a lot of contemporary fantasy, when one thinks about it, doesn't make a lot of sense: if there really were vampires living secretly among us or a hidden world under London or whatever, things would probably be subtly different from the way they are, just like the city in The manual of detection is a bit different but isn't obviously fantastical until we discover why it's different. So yes, I'm all in favour of this sub-genre, and of Berry writing more books.


* (Actually it occurs to me that there is one well-established type of fiction that is very much this, namely the superhero universes of Marvel and DC and similar lines of comics. But it doesn't seem to happen much outside comics.)
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2012-03-24
Read this on your recommendation, and yeah, it's great. I'm impressed with the tone Berry set and how utterly appropriate it was for this sort of story. I find it's not a style which particularly appeals to me, but the storytelling is so good that I enjoyed it anyway.

The beginning irked me a little—again, I get that the slow pacing is part of the aesthetic, and I get that Unwin being so wet that he strenuously resists his promotion as some sort of mistake is crucial to his character; but when you put the two together the theme of “Unwin working to avoid taking part in the book's plot” ends up outstaying its welcome, at least for me.
Melanie at 03:47 on 2012-11-21
But there probably should be a term for the sort of fantasy that's set in a world pretty similar to our own but with fantastical elements that are out in the open and generally accepted, if only because long-running works of contemporary fantasy (like Buffy) often turn into this as the general public becomes increasingly aware of the fantastical stuff going on.
[snip]
...a lot of contemporary fantasy, when one thinks about it, doesn't make a lot of sense: if there really were vampires living secretly among us or a hidden world under London or whatever, things would probably be subtly different from the way they are...


You know, I can only think of a few (non-comics) examples of this, and I wonder if it's significant that in the three cases I can actually think of the background for[1], they started out with a "hidden fantastical stuff that most people don't know about, but other stuff is basically the same" and then at some point in the last several decades there was some kind of event that revealed the hidden fantastical stuff to all the regular humans.

I think it might be that it's just a little too absurd to say, "oh, it's basically like the real world, except magic has always existed and been known to exist and this somehow hasn't had a massive effect on social and technological development, everywhere". If you're going to do "everyone's always known magic exists" then you're probably better off just making your own world anyway, because everything would have to be so different. Whereas if you have it so that magic (I'm just lumping all the various supernatural creatures under "magic" as well, since they usually have magical aspects/abilities) has always existed but has been hidden, then it's a bit more believable that the world could be basically the same. If they've all been hiding it for time out of mind, then they'd necessarily also have been trying not to interact with the rest of the world in obviously magical ways and hiding any, well, influence they might have had on the world just because of what they are. Logically, yes, things would still be different, but maybe in subtle ways and it's hard to say what exactly would be different, so it's easier to suspend disbelief about it and say that whatever differences there are, are somewhere we aren't looking. And it can also play into the idea that the stuff in the story could really happen because the world is the world you know, and how do you know there aren't vampires living among us secretly, eh?

So, if you want to have a reasonably recognizable contemporary setting but also have magical stuff out in the open, then it makes sense to say that it was hidden until fairly recently--it's easier to sketch out an AU of the last thirty years or however long, than of all of human history.


[1]The other two are the Anita Blake books and the Sookie Stackhouse ones. I can't remember if those have a setting where the public at large always knew about vampires[2], etc., or if they did the Masquerade-then-reveal thing.
[2]To... more of an extent than people actually believed in them, I guess?
Neal Yanje at 04:08 on 2012-11-21
[1]The other two are the Anita Blake books and the Sookie Stackhouse ones. I can't remember if those have a setting where the public at large always knew about vampires[2], etc., or if they did the Masquerade-then-reveal thing.


If the Sookie Stackhouse books are anything like the TV series, it was a sudden reveal in the last decade, like you mentioned earlier.
Melanie at 02:35 on 2012-11-22
Oh! Well, there you go then.
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2012-12-03
Neal: If the Sookie Stackhouse books are anything like the TV series, it was a sudden reveal in the last decade, like you mentioned earlier.

Two years before the first book, to be specific.
I think naming the villain who represents the forces of chaos and illusion "Hoffman" is a reference to Angela Carter's "The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman."
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