Saturday, January 26, 2013

Gun Machine

      So the rundown is as follows: They don't make books like this any more. Or they don't often. But once in a blue moon a really good procedural, one with the proper amount of grit and some intelligence, finds its way to shelves. And it's amazing. The hero is flawed, the characters are colorful, every line is interesting and unfolds the mystery properly, and the dialogue is fantastic. This is definitely one of the books I recommend picking up, even if you don't really dig police procedurals. Warren Ellis has long been a writer to watch, and this, while not his magnum opus, is definitely a book high up in the canon. More, as always, after the jump.

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.
- Opening Lines

             Warren Ellis is a favorite author of mine. His comic work asks some very interesting questions and he never seems to employ shock for anything other than driving his point home once he's made it. His first novel (Crooked Little Vein), despite the disturbing content and unnerving view of American sexual adventurism, is one I proudly keep on my bookshelf due to the fact that it has a sick but entirely effective sense of humor. So when his second novel, a deranged-sounding book about guns and unsolved murders, found its way into my hands, I couldn't resist it. I cracked it open that day and sat there for hours, poring over every strange twist, every possible character death, and before I hit the halfway point, I realized "Hey, it's dark in here...and I haven't eaten for hours..."

             It was that good. It's rare that a book completely stumps me, but this one did, and coming off of three other books where I couldn't guess the plot twists means I'm either getting worse at my job, or the writers are getting better. I'm gonna pray for the latter while secretly believing the former. The book is brilliant, a crazy, quirky story I was unable to put down, with a villain who actually exudes menace and a hero who, while flawed, even does the wrong things for the right reasons. Add in some memorable supporting characters, and suddenly his oddly-flawed version of New York becomes infinitely appealing-- and infinitely lethal.

            John Tallow is a detective for the NYPD. He keeps to himself, spends most of his money on books and music, and tries to stay out of everyone's way. His partner, Rosato, is a fairly average detective...weird home life, a knee that's been bothering him, and a personality that complements Tallow's quiet need to be out of everything. However, when responding to a 911 call about a naked shotgun-toting man, Tallow's life is changed quite rapidly. A stray shot from an exchange of gunfire in the apartment reveals a room full of guns in a complex pattern. What starts as something that might be an interesting curiosity for the Crime Scene Unit actually turns into a major case when the guns start matching to unsolved murders, dating back almost twenty years. 

            Tallow has the entire case dumped in his lap, costing him the final shreds of his reputation and saddling him with two eccentric CSU techs to try and make something of the mess. But each new gun creates a new link in the chain, and soon Tallow realizes the case is far deeper than he could ever imagine, and he is going to need every shred of evidence and every one of his few remaining wits to survive and leave this with his job intact. That is, if the owner of the guns doesn't come for him first. 

            So the best thing about this book is the setting. New York is dying and decaying, and being replaced by a shinier, more expensive model. In fact, the entire book seems to be about the old getting replaced by the new. In the beginning, the NYPD dispatch office is likened to the brain of a dinosaur, sending its signals to the tail, and the metaphor carries throughout the book as Tallow battles with bureaucracy as much as he does the killer. Even the killer is concerned with the new replacing the old, as he phases in and out between "Old Manhattan", a wilderness that is completely unspoiled, and "New Manhattan", the city we all know. There's even an exchange between the heroes and the members of a shadowy private security firm who tell them about the technology that's overtaking the city. And the setting, a New York filled with very plausible "ghost maps" of information and other flows of information. 

             Flows of information are also an important theme in the book. Tallow practically lives in the flows of information around the case as part of his "much strange cop voodoo". The CSUs track the killer through DNA and possible fingerprint matches. There's an explanation of latency and why buildings that aren't necessarily closer physically are better for connectivity. A constant refrain in the book is the police band Tallow listens to in the car, as well as the massive pile of history books in both his apartment and the backseat of his cruiser. And it is this eccentricity that helps him with the case.

             Which leads me to another interesting thing Warren Ellis does: On the job, the characters are humanized, made more normal. However, their personal lives do the opposite effect: Tallow lives in what's practically a book and music storage unit. Scarlatta, one of the CSUs, lives with her musclebound wife in a swank apartment in a relationship that's predicated on an odd form of emotional catharsis. Bat, the other CSU Tallow works with, spends his free time building motion-detected robots and complaining about his "death bag" and how much he hates eating. The characters do their jobs with an amazing degree of competency, but once the work goes off, we see they're just as crazy and dysfunctional as the man they're pursuing, which creates an interesting effect.

                   Usually in police procedurals, the exact opposite is true: The home life is used to humanize and portray the characters as more than their job. Ellis, by turning this inside out in Gun Machine, creates the idea that the characters are the job, and that they're trying to push for identity as part of the job, rather than outside it. In fact, in some cases they may even be trying to escape their identities through their jobs. 

                Finally, Ellis has an amazing writing style. Every line sounds interesting and made me want to read more of it, getting me to turn the pages just to find out how the story would unfold, and how everything would end up. I'm pleased to say I wasn't disappointed in how it turns out, however...

               The book isn't without its faults. In the end, a very messy situation is tied up in a few neat clues, and half the crazy events in the book are explained away in a little too neat a manner for me. Also, Ellis tends to get a little too tracty in parts, talking about police corruption and brutality in a section on why Bat tells Tallow he's a CSU rather than a police officer. In the end, though, these are minor niggles, and it's nice to see Ellis is trying to rein himself in from Crooked Little Vein.

               So in the end? Buy this book. Read this book. Suggest this book to other people. It's a genuinely interesting and surprising procedural in a genre that practically runs on tropes. It's a fascinating exploration of the procedural genre, and it's well worth your time to read and enjoy it. And I hope you will.

Since we broke the theme, might as well continue breaking it:
The Stranger by Max Frei

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