Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine

Written by: Warren Ellis

Published: 2013

Synopsis: After a shootout claims the life of his partner in a condemned tenement building on Pearl Street, Detective John Tallow unwittingly stumbles across an apartment stacked high with guns. When examined, each weapon leads to a different, previously unsolved murder. Someone has been killing people for twenty years or more and storing the weapons together for some inexplicable purpose.

Confronted with the sudden emergence of hundreds of unsolved homicides, Tallow soon discovers that he's walked into a veritable deal with the devil. An unholy bargain that has made possible the rise of some of Manhattan's most prominent captains of industry. A hunter who performs his deadly acts as a sacrifice to the old gods of Manhattan, who may, quite simply, be the most prolific murderer in New York City's history.

Challenges: Published in 2013 for Book'd Out's Eclectic Reader Challenge

Warren Ellis has a very special place in my heart. He is 100,000,000 times greater than every other comic book writer that has ever lived or ever will lived, he came at a point in my life when I had run out of HST books and needed a brutally honest, brutally hilarious, brutally mental writer to fill the HST sized gap, he constantly challenges himself and the comic industry (for example, his comic SKV which uses invisible ink) and his series Transmetropolitan (seriously the greatest comic series you will ever read) was the first book Tom lent me and an integral part in my desire to keep seeing him, i.e. keep getting volumes of Transmetro for free. Lucky for Tom it turned out I actually liked the lender as much as the lended (cue fireworks and chirping blue birds with big cartoon eyes and other junk that signifies love). So yes, needless to say, I like Warren Ellis, I like his stuff and I'm usually pretty flippin' quick to buy it as soon as it's advertised.

It's pretty difficult, nigh impossible for a comic writer to successfully transition into novels. Or at least it is without some pretty dismal failures littered along the way. Ellis's first novel, Crooked Little Vein (which I loved and reviewed here) was amazing because it captured the brashness and rapid fire attack of a comic narrative while also containing depth, fantastic pacing and Ellis's unique outlook on life. So again, needless to say I had pretty high hopes that Gun Machine would fall into line with the rest of his oeuvre.

90% of Gun Machine does live up to the Warren Ellis hype, but the other 10% has been niggling at me for weeks, making it virtually impossible to write this review. Ellis' go to genre seems to be crime/police procedural, but he typically approaches it in a way that avoids all the daggy tropes and pitfalls that the crime books my mum likes stumble over. Ellis' crime stories have an edge, perhaps it's supernatural, perhaps it's investigating fringe culture, or maybe it's using a protagonist who is an investigative gonzo journalist. Which ever he chooses he usually has a really good reason which both informs and is informed by the events of the novels, and there's just a real chunkiness to the whole thing. Like when you have a really hearty casserole for dinner and you feel full and satisfied and warm for hours afterwards. For the first time though I felt like there was a lack of connection and flow in Ellis' work.

His protagonist, John Tallow, is absolutely an interesting character. The book opens with Tallow and his partner turning up at a crime scene where a man was rampaging around the hallway of an apartment naked holding a gun. Things happen and the big naked guy ends up shooting Tallow's partner, killing him instantly. Along with ending the life of Tallow's much more loved and respected partner, the big guy blew a hole in the wall of a neighbouring apartment, thrusting Tallow into a whole new world of shit. The apartment is full of guns, guns which testing will show were each used for different unsolved murder cases. Without even getting a day to deal with the loss of his good friend and partner Tallow is put onto the case of solving this monster of a case. What we learn is that this case is basically considered a career killer. There are hundreds of guns, spanning hundreds of separate cases, with no fingerprints or DNA. It's going to destroy their district's stats and the chance of finding the culprit is considered close to impossible.

We don't get all the details right away, but it's becomes pretty clear that Tallow is apathetic about police work, he's "nine parts dead already". He has no desire to rise through the ranks or to make any conspicuous change in society. It's just a job, and a job which he puts the smallest modicum of effort into. He floats through it all, and at first you get angry for him when his now-dead partner's wife refuses to let him come to the funeral (she thinks it should have been him) or his boss treats him like dirt, but then you find yourself getting angry at him because he just doesn't care. It's frustrating, but it also makes for a very interesting read - are we going to see him fail as everyone expects him to? Is he going to have a meteoric rise to success? Does he actually care about anything? And why does he seem to care about so little?

What isn't so great (and this is where that 90-10 split first appears) is that along with this genuinely interesting character turmoil, there are these character quirks that just feel tacked on. Ellis' male protagonists are typically intelligent, messy and sarcastic men who drink dark black coffee like water and smoke like Humphrey Bogart (or at least they do in my mind). Most of that transfers over to Tallow's sardonic and apathetic persona with ease, but then you have things like Tallow's bibliophagism, which basically just involves the backseat of Tallow's cop car being covered in books and e-readers (because a lot of people have more than one?) and a snarky young CSU tech making a couple of quips about it. Sure there's a few lines about him reading up on the history of something or another, but does it really serve a purpose? Tallow could have been a devourer of New York history without having books falling out of his car and making up the legs of his coffee table.

Similarly the CSU techs, Scarly and Bat, are bordering on quirkly/creepy/weirdo cardboard cut-outs (a lesbian you say? Oh they have toys in their office? How novel!) of better Warren Ellis characters, but end up kind of awesome if only because they are everything the CSUs we see in crime shows  are not. And finally there is "the hunter", the guy who is actually behind all the killings, and who we unfortunately spend every second chapter with. He's interesting enough, and it was cool to be able to connect dots in the case before Tallow but I think he would have been infinitely more interesting if we only saw him through Tallow's eyes. We don't need an insiders view on everything, especially when there's an almost magical/supernatural quality to the case at times.

So whether it was the hunter's chapters, or the disconnection with some of the character construction or something larger in terms of narrative or pacing - something was just flat about this book. It's average in size, but it took 100 or so pages before I really got into the swing of things and even then I never felt the need to sit there and devour it as quickly as I could. This is unheard of for me with Warren Ellis, I am normally on board from the title page onwards, no doubts, no reservations. In saying all of this though, 99% of the actual writing was *kisses fingers like an Italian chef* bellisimo! It's sharp and expressive and caustic and it really just digs into the ills of society in a way that makes you feel squirmish and want to avoid looking into a mirror in direct light.
It was a grim gray thing, the squat building, a fossil husk for little humans to huddle in. Every other building on this side of the block had had, at the very least, dermabrasion and its teeth fixed. Two stood on either side of the old apartment building like smug botoxed thirty-somethings bracing an elderly relative. Many of them looked empty, but nonetheless there were flocks of young men in good suits and bad ties with phones nailed to their heads, and rainbows of angular women stabbing out texts with sharp thumbs. 
The shotgun blast from inside the old building made them all clatter away like flamingos.
There is no doubt that Warren Ellis can write, because holy crap he can write. Nor is there really any question of whether he can construct a story and characters, because he's done it superbly in the past. The question, I guess, is what it was he wanted this book to be? Was it a police procedural with a spin? Was it a look at the internal struggle of a tired cop? Was it about the lengths people are willing to go to make it in New York City? Is it about mental illness, or PTSD? Was it just a book to fill the demands of a publisher's contract so he could move on to projects he was more interested in?

It could be all those things, or none of them. It's unlikely to convert you to the church of Ellis if you aren't already a dues paying member but it probably won't turn you off either. It's interesting and has some fantastic moments once you get into the momentum of the story, but it probably won't linger with you afterwards. It isn't the best book I've read this year, but I'm still going to recommend it because I think there's enough in there to get an enjoyable read out of it and even if I didn't love it, I can't not recommend a Warren Ellis book. So read it, there are some seriously cool elements in it (the gun stuff is actually brilliant) and the writing is phenomenal and it's about to be made into a TV series, so there's that.


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