This was a fun debut novel. I think it is supposed to be a mystery, but the mystery was mysterious and not all that interesting. What was interesting was the world in which it is set. It is an unnamed city in an unnamed time, but indications throughout the story would point to the USA, a seaport city, and the time somewhere between the teens of the 1900s and maybe 1950. I say this because we have revolving doors, which were first installed in 1899, and we have manual typewriters, telephones, but no cell phones, no computers. No Pokemon Go.
Charles Unwin, a nondescript man of indeterminate years works as a clerk for the Agency, a huge detective firm. The Agency has many levels, overseers, watchers, detectives, clerks, overclerks, underclerks, really makes you think of Charlie Chaplin’s world of business. I visualized the entire book in black and white. Yeah, I know. How often does THAT happen? Unwin carries an umbrella, rides a bicycle, and wears a trilby, and yes, I had to look up the difference between a trilby and a fedora. He works on the 14th floor, and when he tries to go to a much higher floor to see a watcher, he is told that his hat is not suitable for that floor.
Charles is the kind of man who has a specific suit and tie for each day of the week, and eats a specific sandwich on each day of the week. He knows it is Wednesday because he has his Wednesday sandwich with him. One day, while on his way to work, he noticed a woman in a plaid coat, waiting for someone at the gate of disembarking passengers. He is fascinated by her, and begins to go daily to Central Terminal the train station, to get his morning coffee. One day, he is contacted by a detective and told he is promoted to detective. He is sure this is an error, and embarks on an attempt to correct the mistake.
Each clerk works for a specific detective, and Unwin’s detective seems to have gone missing. When Unwin goes to his usual floor and his desk, he sees the mysterious woman in the plaid coat seated at his desk working. He tries to speak to his supervisor, who tells him he must go to his new desk on floor 36 because he has been promoted. That is when Unwin decides to go to see the head watcher to explain the mistake. When he arrives, he finds the man dead at his desk.
The Agency has for years been battling the city’s arch enemy, Hoffman, who came in with a traveling carnival. the original owner of the carnival has died, Hoffman has taken it over, and it now sits vacant and deteriorating. Hoffman has gone to the dark side.
Unwin embarks on an investigative search to find his detective so that he, Unwin, can get his old job back. That search leads us through a tangled web of threads, plots, conspiracies and family relationships that soon becomes difficult to follow, especially since I am not the brightest Crayola in the box. We also soon learn that one of the carnival people has developed the skill of entering people’s dreams in order to get information. The malevolent Hoffman, using another family member, hypnotizes the entire city so that he can give them directives for actions that will allow him to take over the city. Thereafter follows a lot of scenes where Unwin is in people’s dreams with other characters of the story.
Now let me get this off my chest right away — I hate dream sequences, relating of a character’s dream(s), in any book. It does nothing to move the story along, acts as padding, and is a waste of a tree (or pixel’s) life. I don’t let anyone in Real Life tell me their dreams. Life is too short. They are dreams, people, junk your mind makes up when you are not supervising it. It’s not Joseph and the 7 thin and 7 fat cows.
Since the last third of the book is mostly descriptions of these dream episodes, I began to slowly lose my will to live. Eventually the book ended, using the improbability of actions done while in someone’s dream, and I turned off the ereader with relief.
It isn’t a bad book. It is well written and for two thirds of it, has us really interested in the dark always-raining world that is Unwin’s city and the mysterious characters and happenings. The idea of involving oneself in someone else’s dreams, while neither new nor original, still had possibilities which it amply fulfilled. I just hate dream stuff.
Trilbies, using less material and being more forgiving of poor fabric, are cheap to make and thus have become widely available. So on one level, a guy in a cheap trilby is saying “I wanted a hat so I just grabbed the first one I saw and considered that sufficient.” Worse, though, the simple fact is that trilbies look like crap on most men. They’re unflattering and unattractive.
The key to choosing a hat, for men, is simply this: a man’s hatbrim should be in proportion to his shoulders. Sinatra could pull off a trilby because, back in the day, he was a skinny little guy with a narrow, vertical-line aesthetic. Most men, however, have broader shoulders, and thus should wear a wider brim. A trilby on a big man looks like the reservoir tip on a ….. never mind.
(Hat description from here. )