07th Apr2013

Book Review: ‘Gun Machine’

by Mark Allen

Written by Warren Ellis | Published by Mulholland Books

NYPD detective John Tallow doesn’t care about his job all that much. He could be good at it if he wanted to, but he’s more content to sit in the passenger seat and let his partner Jim Rosato be the hero. That is at least until Jim’s head gets blown off by a shotgun-wielding naked man and John has to step up and take him down solo, which he does as calmly as possible, despite Rosato’s brains sliding down the wall behind him. But the administrative and emotional fallout of a dead partner soon become the least of his problems as the damage caused by the shootout result in Tallow’s discovery of an entire apartment filled – floor to ceiling in every room – with guns, each one connected to a single unsolved murder.

Over 200 cold cases just got re-opened, and Tallow has to solve them or get the short shrift from his superiors. Probably both, he doesn’t get to the bottom of things quick enough. But even as he tries to piece together what so many guns (some more than 150 years old) are doing in strange swirls behind an terrifyingly well-barricaded door, cogs are turning that put our hero in the crosshairs of exactly the man he’s looking for. Only this guy’s not your regular serial killer…

I can’t quite remember how I first encountered Warren Ellis’s impressive body of work, but it was somewhere between reading your usual entry-level Alan Moore and getting into the more esoteric Grant Morrison stuff that I found an affinity for the renowned British comic author’s intelligent, concise storytelling, his boundless enthusiasm for science, ideals and new boundaries…and, of course, his deft hand with profanities. Stories like Transmetropolitan, Planetary and Ministry of Space are brilliant signature works (and I’ve always had a soft spot for his madcap Marvel books such as the unapologetically insane Nextwave) but I never really appreciated how well Ellis could turn a phrase until I read his first novel, Crooked Little Vein.

That book – following a private dick across the US on a search for the secret Constitution via the seedy, fucked-up underbelly of the country – was both hilarious and grotesque and, though wide in scope, still felt like a character study, albeit one done on the road and amidst many bizarre vignettes that would be almost Lynchian were they not so damn funny.

Gun Machine goes the other way, keeping the action in Manhattan for the duration and taking on much more of a procedural structure while still keeping focus firmly on characters, two in chief; Tallow’s perspective is the one we’re given for most of the book, but every few chapters we are treated to a view of the world as seen by the story’s antagonist, a schizophrenic known only as “the hunter” whose vision of New York City shifts between the modern-day and pre-colonial days on Mannahatta, with lampposts regularly morphing into trees and cars becoming wild, roaming animals before our eyes. His treasure trove of guns compromised, he sets out to restore balance to his life which means pulling the different fragments of the story together before the detective on his tale can and dealing with him accordingly.

Like Ellis, the hunter is efficient and methodical but not in the manner of most fictional assassins: his work is for a greater purpose, one which will be revealed to us in time. The difference in tone between the two leads is somewhat jarring at first, being that Tallow’s scenes involve more conversation and internal sleuthing and less trying not to go batshit crazy on the streets of New York.

Ellis handles dialogue with incredible economy, injecting even fragmented snippets of conversation with the kind of subtle wit or veiled threat that wouldn’t feel out of place on an episode of The Wire. And that comparison’s an apt one, as the story not only concerns corruption in the ranks and shifting blame onto the powerless, but also what can go right – and wrong – when a capable but dispassionate member of the force decides that he is actually good at his job after all.

John Tallow is a classic Ellis protagonist: solitary, crabby and bordering on misanthropic yet sharply intelligent, tech-savvy and hiding a sturdy moral core and intense fascination with the world underneath all that apathy. He’s easy to sympathise with right from the start because, although most of us don’t serve in the NYPD, we do know what it’s like to be tired. And Ellis makes us feel just as tired and worn out as Tallow within the first four pages, allowing us to savour every well-earned cigarette or epiphany as he does. It also doesn’t hurt that he has a hugely entertaining supporting cast to create a little levity when things get too heavy in the form of CSUs Scarly – doesn’t like people, pretends she’s “fucking autistic!” to get them to leave her alone – and her lackey Bat, who’s way into tech but not so much into eating, as it doesn’t agree with his stomach: “I, as a rule, don’t eat food.” They’re like a comedy double act that might be on the verge of killing one another at any moment, and any scene with the three of them together, no matter the subject, is a completely painless read (unless there’s actual physical pain involved).

Despite most of Gun Machine‘s page count taking place in offices, bars and apartment blocks the book rockets along at a fair pace, the hole Tallow is uncovering getting deeper and deeper by the minute with him slipping ever closer to the rim. As I mentioned before, the dialogue rarely bores and always has a purpose, meaning the scenery never becomes more interesting than the story, except perhaps when it becomes the story, as in a superb string of chapters that take place in a facsimile of the gun-covered apartment thought up by Tallow so that he can develop a clearer insight into the killer’s mind, a technique that’s eerily reminiscent of William Petersen’s profiler in Manhunter. If you’re having trouble picturing the hunter’s apartment, the promotional trailer for the book captures it beautifully:

(Yes, that is Wil Wheaton narrating. The art is by Ellis’s Fell collaborator Ben Templesmith and the video was directed by Jim Batt.)

That trailer captures the feel of the hunter’s chapters (and Tallow’s when he’s in proximity to him) superbly: Ellis imbues him with a single, rigorous purpose that’s almost a crusade in his own mind, and we’re witness to the horrific lengths he’s willing to go to in order to continue his “life’s work”. He may be stuck in the past, but Tallow doesn’t seem overly fond of the present either. At several points in Gun Machine we’re treated to a series of reports on the police radio band: murders, stabbings, shootings, muggings, all turned up to 11 in the worst ways but just background noise for Tallow, who finds them oddly comforting. This is a man who doesn’t care about the outside world when we first meet him, but as he learns more about the people’s lives that have been ruined by the events he’s investigating, a sense of wanting to be in the world resurfaces in Tallow, something that’s well-earned and satisfying to experience.

As the the book moves toward its conclusion Tallow edges closer and closer to personal danger, but throws caution to the wind and circumvents ordinary procedure in true Warren Ellis fashion to give you a classic story told in a way you’ve not quite seen before. Much of the hunter’s inner monologue bemoan’s the city’s changes, and Tallow doesn’t seem to care a great deal for modern-day Manhattan himself, being something of a recluse and history nut. But that doesn’t stop him utilising both the city and its ultra-modern trappings in a rather ingenious yet somewhat unsettling manner: the hunter stuck in the past is finished by a man from the present using the tools of the future.

There are precinct politics to be dealt with, but Ellis wraps up the loose ends of the plot with little fanfare and soon gets to the real meat of the ending, which is the relationship between the hunter and Tallow, who have a mutual respect for one another despite the gulf of murder between them. We’re left feeling like the world’s not necessarily going to be a better place for all this, but that John Tallow might just be a better man. And that’s more than you can say for most procedurals.

Gun Machine is on sale now.

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