Warren Ellis (www.warrenellis.com)
Mulholland Books (www.mulhollandbooks.co.uk)
On playing back the 911 recording, it’d seem that Mrs. Stegman was more concerned that the man outside her apartment door was naked than that he had a big shotgun.
John Tallow is a New York City detective, riding on the coattails of his much more popular partner. When they respond to a 911 call concerning a man with a shotgun, both Tallow’s partner and the naked man end up dead, and Tallow stumbles across the strangest thing he has ever seen: one of the apartments in the building the naked man has been terrorising is full of guns, arranged on the walls and floor in seemingly deliberate patterns. Closer examination shows that these are no ordinary guns: 200 or so weapons, ranging from an 1836 flintlock pistol to Son of Sam’s .44 Bulldog, each one can be linked directly to a murder carried out in the greater New York area at some point during the past twenty years. Dragged off mandatory leave, Tallow finds that his popularity in the department has gone down a few notches, but as he sets to work with CSUs Scarly and Bat he discovers a new enthusiasm for the job and a serial killer with a seemingly endless supply of patience.
Gun Machine, Warren Ellis’ second novel (though the first to get a UK release), starts off with the light-hearted quip about Mrs Stegman’s 911 call, but by the time the first chapter is finished – a mere five pages – there is blood on the walls, and John Tallow’s life has become much more interesting than he might have liked. The setup is fairly straightforward – an apartment full of guns that turn out to be connected with a series of unconnected murders ranging over the past twenty years – but it provides Ellis with the perfect vehicle to develop his central character. When we first meet John Tallow, he has lost any enthusiasm for his job that he may once have had. “People wondered why John Tallow didn’t put a hell of a lot of effort into being a cop anymore” we’re told. Thrown into an impossible situation – the apartment full of guns is nothing but a headache to the NYPD, unsolvable and potentially embarrassing, and his assignment to the case seems like little more than a convenient excuse to force Tallow out of the job – Tallow nevertheless feels he has something to prove, and enough drive to get him started. He is, despite his belligerence, a character that will appeal to many readers, and we’re carried along by the need to see how he develops over the course of the story, as much as by the story itself.
The supporting cast are no less engaging, although none of them seem to be the type of people that should be let out alone. Bat and Scarly, a pair of crime scene investigators, are assigned to assist Tallow. More than a little insane they provide, at times, an element of comic relief (however darkly humorous) while also playing an important role in helping Tallow investigate the case. While this pair are excellent at what they do, they’re unlike anything you’ve seen on CSI: NY.
Scarly was a birdlike woman in her midtwenties in the process of yelling “Of course I don’t care if you’re bleeding! I’m fucking autistic!” at an ill-looking man with five years on her whose appearance wasn’t improved by the absence of a chunk of left ear.
“You know what, Scarly?” the bleeding man said, flapping his arms. “There’s a letter in my apartment that says that if I’m found dead at work it’s going to be your fault and you probably did it deliberately.”
Outside this small group, we find the killer himself. A man referred to throughout the novel only as The Hunter, he sees two different versions of New York and can seemingly transport himself between them. Ellis writes a number of chapters from the man’s point of view, which gives us an interesting perspective on an extremely creepy character.
Gun Machine is at heart a straightforward police procedural populated by the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There is a heavy reliance on coincidence to drive Tallow’s case forward, which might have made for a frustrating read had this been a straightforward detective novel, but that’s far from the case here. What drives the story are the characters and their relationships, the history of the city, the concepts of one potential future New York that Ellis peppers throughout the story and, most importantly, the gun machine itself – why are all these guns stuck to the walls and floor of this one apartment? What is the purpose of those patterns on the walls? And do those spaces mean what they seem to mean? Like other writers who honed their craft on comics – Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey – Ellis brings a certain something to his novels that set them apart from anything else. While not as twisted or dark as Crooked Little Vein (which I would urge you to read if you have not already done so), Gun Machine is nevertheless not for the fainthearted.
Extremely smart, very funny and intensely dark in places, Gun Machine shows that Warren Ellis is as comfortable in this form of storytelling as he is in the form for which he is better known. In some ways it’s quite depressing: this is the first book I’ve read in 2013, and I’m finding it hard to envisage a better one this year. Unlike anything else you’ve read, Gun Machine is a quick (barely 300 pages) and action-packed read that will keep you hooked from that opening line. Outlandish but very believable, it’s an excellent place to get to know this fine writer and will leave you hoping for more. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.