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August 20, 2012 / schulerbooks

Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis

NYC Detective John Tallow is “that kind” of cop. Not good, bad, stunning, or stupid — the one who’s just sort of there. After four years of being partnered with a real go-getter, he’s pretty much given up on trying to do his job; he’s content to live in his head, wallow in a cluttered apartment, and refuse to even try to have a social life for fear of risking what remains of his emotional stability.

That changes one day, when his partner gets shot in the brains by a naked guy with a shotgun, quite upset that his tenement had been bought up and he was going to have to leave in three months. But it isn’t so much the fact that his partner’s been killed that rouses Tallow from his own, living death, but what a blast from that same shotgun has revealed.

Beyond the hole in the wall lies an apartment that has been literally decorated with guns. They’re mounted on the walls, and strewn all over the floor, in what appear to be complex patterns.

And, upon forensic examination, they turn out to have all been involved in an unsolved murder.

Of course, this is New York City, so what should have gotten John a clap on the shoulder for finding something like this instead earns him the anger of his Lieutenant, and the undying enmity of the Crime Scene Units. It also awards him the understanding that — grieving and broken or not — he’d better find out all he can about these guns and how they got there, or else he’ll be hung out to dry.

While it’s fairly obvious that his Lt. expects him to fail at this, and is most likely setting him up to be the ablative armor around her own behind, Tallow doesn’t do the obvious thing (which would involve homicide by office furniture). Instead, he jumpstarts the almost-atrophied cop parts of his brain, hits the pavement, and starts following the trail to see where it leads him.

A pair of questionably sane — but unquestionably competent — CSU techs quickly become indispensable partners in his investigation, which soon takes him from the nasty streets to the corporate offices and guarded, keep-like apartments of the city’s new rich. It also shows him maps of the Manhattan he never really knew about — old and worn guides to things buried deep under the pavement, and new gazetteers of the  electrical fire running from Wall Street and back.

But as Tallow starts investigating the strange nature of what he’d found in that room, and discovering how wide and deep this may actually go, the mysterious individual who was using the apartment becomes aware of him. And this, given the man’s almost supernatural command of the city, and how to move through it unseen, means that the detective’s return to life may be short-lived, indeed. Can John Tallow and his allies discover the secret of the Gun Machine before the Hunter makes one or more of them a part of it?

Warren Ellis’ sophomore prose outing may disappoint fans who come to this straight from Crooked Little Veinas it is nowhere near that book’s levels of truly inspired and subversive insanity. However, long-time fans of his quite massive body of graphic novels will feel quite at home; his tendency to meld intriguing and/or dark scientific concepts, bawdy and/or weird dialogue, and eccentric and/or somewhat-cracked characters is very much at play in Gun Machine. Indeed, while it lacks Crooked’s roll-on-the-floor-sharting-your-liver-out-of-your-navel-while-laughing, wholly and totally over the top nature, Ellis remains a goldmine of outlandish outbursts and scatological insults, along with gross and horrible asides that are sometimes funny, and sometimes heartbreaking — sometimes at the same time.

More importantly, at least for his prose writing career, Ellis has written an intriguing, suspenseful, and — best of all — very accessible police procedural mystery. His characters quickly earn your interest and sympathy, the mystery deepens and puzzles at every turn, and the adversary is a wily monster (insane? supernatural? both?) whose doings soon begin to inspire genuine dread.

It’s not a perfect puzzlebox, unfortunately. At 308 pages, Gun Machine is a feverishly short read, and its brevity shows in spots; aspects of the conundrum could have been expounded upon more, and some events and character relationships could have stood to be embellished or explained in more detail.

But those nitpicks fall by the wayside for the simple reason that, put simply, Ellis knows how to make you root for a character, and set up a sting. He also knows how to nail an ending, which I won’t give away, except to say that I hope this will not be the last we see of John Tallow. Ellis has hit a good, comfortable prose stride in Gun Machine, and I’d sure like to see him reload this quirky weapon in the near future.

Gun Machine comes out New Years Day of 2013, and will very much be worth crawling out of bed for.

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