Jan 10, 2013

Book Review: "Gun Machine" by Warren Ellis

By Paul Krueger

It’s a fair assumption to say that if there’s a crime story to be told about New York City, the Law & Order franchise has already told it.

Celebrated comic book writer Warren Ellis sees your fair assumption, then laughs cigarette smoke in your face before beating you with his new novel, Gun Machine.  Then he crouches down as you groan on the concrete and whispers to you: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

Chances are, you haven't.

Minutes after Detective John Tallow puts down the naked man who just gave his partner a faceful of lead, he stumbles onto an apartment full of guns.  Not racks on racks on racks of guns; they wallpaper the place and form elegant patterns on the floor.  Their significance soon emerges: each gun is linked to an unsolved Manhattan homicide from the last twenty years.  The brass hangs the entire mess on Tallow’s head even though he should be nowhere near the street, leaving him to uncover the most prolific serial killer in the city’s history as PTSD creeps in around the edges of his mind.

Ellis has a very distinct authorial fingerprint that shows as strongly in his prose as it ever has in his comics work.  And beyond that, he should be lauded for how informative Gun Machine is about Manhattan’s layout and history, especially considering that he’s a British writer who hasn’t visited the city in years.  But there’s a delightfully slanted sensibility to his New York, where accounts of absurd murders filter over the police band and strange amounts of sychronicity occur between the minds of two perfect strangers.  It perfectly informs the story he’s telling, where a forensics officer pretends to be autistic so she can get away with being uncouth, and her partner refers to his stomach as a “death bag” and was baptized with the name “Batmobile.”

Gun Machine is not without its faults, though, many of them endemic to the police procedural genre.  The aforementioned segments where Tallow listens to the police blotter as he drives feel like little more than a chance for Ellis to flex his absurdity muscles.  And while he uses his unique voice to convey scenes like the statistics-obsessed superior chewing out our hero, all his personal flourishes can’t hide the fact that these are boilerplate scenes in any cop story, including his.  Even Tallow, interesting and off-kilter as he is, is just a more intellectual variation of the Loose Cannon Cop On The Edge.  Gun Machine isn’t a story about Tallow so much as a story about his job, creating perhaps the most kneecapping weakness of all: the detective you read about on page twenty isn’t a particularly different man from the one who drives away at the end of the book.

Ellis’ vaunted imagination, however, comes out to play in force during the non-police segments of the narrative, and those passages soar highest.  Told from the perspective of Tallow’s perp, known only as the Hunter, they follow the mind of a man who slides between two Manhattans: the modern concrete-and-chaos monstrosity that we know, and the island of old, all trees and Mannahatta territory.  Many serial killer dramas choose to leave their target shrouded in mystery, only for him to vomit up a brick of exposition at the end after he’s been caught.  Ellis wisely sidesteps this by letting us know who this guy is early on, creating a fascinating villain who ultimately becomes more interesting to watch than his pursuers.

Though it certainly treads territory no Law & Order episode would touch, Gun Machine leaves its viewers similarly affected when it’s over.  The prose is hard-boiled as boot leather and leavened with a sense of humor that’s bodega coffee-black, but the story that prose builds is worth a read or two and little thought after it’s done.  While it’s happening, the plot’s momentum makes it deeply engrossing, but the last paragraphs will haunt readers no more than would the cherry-on-top one-liner that usually precedes that final flashing credit of “Executive Producer: Dick Wolf.”

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