Warren Ellis is not what many would consider a mainstream author. Nor would anyone typically accuse him of being… well, typical. His stories are often mad romps through strange futures, like Transmetropolitan or perverse, over-the-top detective tales like Crooked Little Vein.
That’s why Gun Machine comes as such a surprise. It is, for the most part, a by-the-books thriller\crime drama\police procedural that takes the reader to the heart of New York City. Does it work? Read on, dear reader, to find out.
January 1, 2013
I often have trouble connecting comic book authors with the characters they help to breathe life into. I’ve often wondered if Grant Morrison or Garth Ennis have some sort of magic mirror (or perhaps a kind of wormhole) that allows them to remotely view incredibly messed-up shit and then write about it.
I’ve also wondered about Warren Ellis, especially after I finished his weirdly excellent\excellently weird 2007 novel Crooked Little Vein, an odd mash-up of a hard-boiled detective story, insane conspiracy theory, and really disturbing sexual fetishes.
That said, I still enjoyed it. But it was with some trepidation that I picked up Ellis’ latest novel, Gun Machine. Still, it couldn’t be as off-the-wall and disconcerting as Crooked Little Vein, could it?
In a word… No.
But I don’t see this as a fault of the novel at all! Quite the opposite, in fact. Ellis manages to cage a lot of dense and interesting ideas into a plot that would feel right at home on a show like Law & Order… except Ellis’ story is much smarter.
So what’s this novel about? Well, it starts out with a bang. Detective John Tallow responds to a fairly routine call when his partner is shot and killed in front of him. Tallow retaliates in kind, killing the shooter. When he investigates the scene of the crime, John stumbles onto an apartment that is lined entirely in guns.
Guns from every era and of every type. Pistol, rifle, semi-automatic, full-auto… just about any type of gun you can think of. The firearms are arranged on the walls and ceilings in an odd shape that Tallow immediately recognizes as important… but what does it mean?
As the guns are analyzed, they all point to unsolved murders in New York… starting centuries previously. Even infamous weapons, such as the gun used by Son of Sam, are discovered in the apartment.
Every couple of chapters, Ellis writes from the perspective of the killer, referred to as The Hunter. The chapters are creepy and disconcerting because he keeps jumping in and out of modern New York. Sometimes, he sees the buildings and the cars, other times he perceives the world around him as full of trees and moose.
What really rounds the novel out, however, is the supporting characters. The two CSI members, Bat and Scarly, are more in line with what readers have come to expect from Warren Ellis characters. Tallow has his own streak of misanthropy, but Scarly is particularly sour and Bat is particularly odd, whiny, and hilarious.
All that said… the book isn’t perfect. There’s a fairly lengthy series of coincidences that lead up to the end of the novel and the end itself is… well, not so spectacular. But Ellis does such a good job with the characters and the message of the novel that I’m willing to overlook some of the other issues present.
The book works better overall than Crooked Little Vein and the two main characters are memorable enough to make a reader want to revisit them at a later date. The complexity of the plot, outside of the more coincidental portions, is particularly well-thought-out, so… check it out.
Warren Ellis is one of the smartest writers out there today (hell, he’s the only author worth reading in Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Authority) and it really shines through in this novel… just be warned that it isn’t as consistent as Transmetropolitan or Nextwave.
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