BOOK REVIEW: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

GunMachine

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis, pub Mulholland Books (ISBN 978-1444730647)

I have no compunction in reviewing this book on Geek Syndicate, even though you could easily label it as a straight police procedural.  It’s a sad truth, but readers tend to find one or two genres that they’re comfortable with and stick firmly within the boundaries.  I’m no exception, but when a book turns up by Warren Ellis (Planetary, Transmetropolitan, Red) well… you kind of have to sit up and pay attention.

Are you paying attention?  Good, you won’t regret it.

Take a look at this gorgeous book trailer on YouTube, then read my review after the jump.

 

Police Detective John Tallow is a man on the brink.  He’s tired, he’s confused and he’s angry.  This morning he was content to sleep walk through life, but a shootout with a crazy naked guy just lost him his partner.  It also landed him with the biggest serial killer case in history: a room filled with guns, patterned and inscrutable; each one linked to a separate unsolved murder, going back decades.  He should be on leave.  He should be at his partner’s funeral.  There’s a lot of should-haves in this world but Tallow’s options are running out, fast.  His superiors don’t want the case to be solved.  They just want to bury it, and him alongside.  The time has come for John Tallow to wake up, or eat dirt.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected.  I don’t usually read crime, but I have a real soft spot for film noir.  Although this doesn’t fit neatly into the patterns and tropes of that celebrated film genre, there’s enough of its flavour to hook me in.  The setting may be present day/very near future New York, but you could happily drop Tallow into a story set in the 1940’s and he’d fit just as neatly.  The writing is vibrant, dripping with vivid descriptions and razor-sharp dialogue.  Ellis has a gift for creating rich and fresh similes that make the pages pop.  The pacing is kept tight and the reader is bounced expertly from taut concern to wry laughter and sickening despair as the magnitude of the case becomes apparent.  Finally, this is a guy who knows how to write solid characters.  He has a real lightness of touch with it too, sketching in the necessities but allowing actions and dialogue to flesh them out.

Tallow may be an anti-social bastard, but he’s a great character to spend time with.  He notices and evaluates everything, extrapolating character and possible motive from the tiniest detail as a simple matter of course.  His police brain is just wired that way.  It lends a fascinating insight into the tics and tells we all project through our body language and demeanour.  In some ways he is a classic detective: full of snarky comments, sour disposition and emotional reticence; but Ellis takes pains to humanise him through the state of his mental health.  The touches of trauma that break through his facade – the twitches and trembles, the return to smoking, the loneliness – all add up to a far more rounded representation of a cop in the field than I’ve encountered before.  The smoothness with which all this is folded into the narrative demonstrates a genuine talent for multi-layered narrative, turning what could have been a typical Marlowe trope into a relatable and vulnerable man.

Leavening Tallow’s gloom are the most delightfully skewed pair of forensics experts you could hope to meet.  ‘Skarly’ is a real firecracker; sharp-witted and short-tempered.  She’s heaps of fun to be around and really helps balance out the tone of the book.  Her sidekick ‘Bat’ is a hoot, too.  He’s a real techie with a touch of the man-child about him.  The banter between these two is amazing, giving us some proper laugh out loud moments, and the effect they have on Tallow’s sombre world-view is developed beautifully.  The final piece of the puzzle is the killer, of course.  In literature we tend to like our killers to be different to normal people.  I can imagine nothing so unsettling as the realisation that someone you’ve known for years has done something unspeakable.  If they are able to move invisibly through society then none of us can feel safe.  Ellis takes this tack but gives it a completely different spin.  The way the hunter experiences the world is like nothing I’ve seen before, and it has the contradictory effects of both raising his status and making him negligible.  Aside from engaging with your protagonist, it’s critical to any crime book that you fear the enemy.  This one may be bat-shit crazy but his whole being is focussed on his tasks.  He is a careful and dedicated predator, and I found him utterly compelling.

Nevertheless, I did have one or two problems with the book, which I’ll detail briefly.  Firstly, everybody seemed to know an awful lot about the history of Manhattan.  It’s clear that the author did a lot of research, found a lot of interesting information and wanted to show it.  While it was all fascinating, in my experience very few people actually bother to pull their heads out of their arses long enough to learn about the history of the place they live or work in.  Secondly, Ellis gives Tallow up-to-date technology to use in the investigation, but steadfastly refuses to name-check any specific products.  Whilst he may not have wanted to provide anyone with free advertising, it felt excessively coy and pulled me out of the story a little.  Finally, I found the ending a little unsatisfactory.  I’ve mulled over it long and hard, and have come up with several reasons why Ellis was wise to bring it to a climax in the way he did.  However, from pure gut level I found myself wanting another 5-10 pages to bring me down smoother.  Small quibbles overall for an enjoyable read.  In a lesser writer’s hands I would have given the story 3.5/5 but Ellis’ character work and sheer style elevate it to…

 

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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