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Three Books In Praise Of The Clueless Detective

Maybe it was the way they seemed to know their client's darkest secrets without being told, their apparent unflappability, or that they said things like, "If it is any point requiring reflection… we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark."

Detectives could always be counted on to captivate us. They had cool trench coats, impossibly original hats, and a comforting air of inevitability around their discoveries.

But in an era in which we're no longer sure of anything -- not our own economies, and not even whether Twitter is a waste of time or the greatest invention since contact lenses -- there's something to be said for stories about hero sleuths who don't know it all, but will do what it takes to learn.

And so the protagonists in the following modern detective procedurals have none of the self-assuredness of C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot. Sure, they have lots to learn. But since we do, too, it's nice that they make a point of taking us along for the ride one lesson at a time.


The Manual of Detection: A Novel

By Jedediah Berry, paperback 288 pages, Penguin, list price: $15

Reluctant new detective Charles Unwin just wants to go back to being an anonymous clerk. He longs to be back on the 14th floor of the Agency classifying the clues and details (two different concepts he goes to lengths to make sure we never confuse) in the files of illustrious detective Travis Sivart. But when Sivart disappears in search of Enoch Hoffman, an evil criminal mind that has infiltrated the dreams of the unnamed city and everyone in it, Unwin must let go of his routine, his typewriter, his umbrella and his bike, and follow Sivart into a maze of Borgesian qualities. A journey made even more dangerous by the fact that the evil he confronts may well be coming from his own mind, but one that is made fun for us as we learn each lesson in the title's manual along with our imperfect hero.


Captain Alatriste

By Arturo Perez-Reverte, paperback 304 pages, Plume, list price: $15

Alatriste is not a detective. He's a captain, for Spain's sake! But guided by Arturo Perez-Reverte's assured pen, Alatriste quickly has to turn into one if he's going to find out why 17th-century messengers apparently sent by Fray Emilio Bocanegra, "president of the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition," want him to murder two Englishmen who have come to Madrid, or face death himself. Along the way, he makes an important friend -- the Watson to Alatriste's Sherlock Holmes -- and solves the mystery that could bring three world powers to war. Thankfully, the broad background history is perfectly balanced, and the characters as deep and multi-faceted as the ones in any good piece of literature. But it is the sense of search and discovery, the feeling that we might be learning invaluable detecting skills along with this brave captain turned unwilling clue hound, that makes this novel a treasure of a detective manual in the unlikeliest of places.


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery

By Alan Bradley, paperback 416 pages, Bantam, list price: $15

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie takes place in the '50s in a sleepy English village with the evocative name of Bishop's Lacey. There, within the walls of a venerable mansion, Flavia de Luce spends her summer concocting potions in the lab inherited from her oddball great-uncle. That is, until a stranger turns up dead outside her window in the most mysterious of fashions. Then Sweetness becomes a page-turning detective how-to, as Flavia puts aside her aspirations of being a famous chemist and decides she might as well learn to be a good sleuth and solve the crime herself, much to the dismay of the local police. She may be only 11 years old, but you won't feel like you're reading the story of a child prodigy. Instead, it will be like reading the story of the child you might have been, and rediscovering your untapped potential with every insight and morsel of truth at the bottom of this triumphant pie.

In the end, there's a real gift for us all in these tales of detection: we're being taught how to see. Lesson by lesson, these authors are helping us develop a talent with which to better experience truth, beauty and humanity in any tale, maybe even our own.

Anjanette Delgado is the author of The Heartbreak Pill. She lives in Miami, Fla.

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva. Editorial and production assistance from Hannah Levintova.

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Anjanette Delgado