Just about everything in Gun Machine, Warren Ellis' dark but pleasingly quirky crime thriller, is a little bit off, not quite what you'd expect. The machine of the title, for example, is not a manufacturing device but an apartment in a rundown tenement on Pearl Street, in Manhattan, that is crammed with guns, and not just ordinary ones. The pistol that once belonged to the Son of Sam killer is here, and so is a flintlock pistol used in the first recorded murder in Rochester.
Both have been repurposed for additional killings, and so has every other gun in the place, which is a virtual museum of murders, 20 years' worth, carefully tended by a figure known only as "the hunter." The hunter is not your run-of-the-mill serial killer either. Bearded, smelly, often mistaken for a street person, he's a schizoid psychopath who, while lethally competent with 21st-century weaponry, imagines himself to be a resident of Mannahatta when it was inhabited by the Lenape.
He lives on dried squirrel meat and leaves and berries scavenged from Central Park, and while walking or waiting for a traffic light to change frequently has hallucinatory episodes where the skyscrapers grow bark and become trees, the passing cars become herds of deer. Meanwhile, as the hunter scuttles around in the past, a creepy, futuristic security organisation named Spearpoint is installing video cameras everywhere and hoping eventually to take over the job of policing New York. Caught in the middle, in the messy present, is a hapless police detective with the unlovely name of John Tallow. When Tallow accidentally comes across the gun cache – a discovery that just means work and bother for the police — his superiors punish him by assigning him to trace all the weapons and solve all the cases. Their hope is that Tallow will make such a bungle of things that the whole mess will go away.
It's not an unreasonable hope. Even by the loner standards of detective fiction, Tallow is an extreme case: He has no friends, no family, no interests (except reading, which he seems to do obsessively and indiscriminately), virtually no personality at all. He lives in an apartment that resembles an archaeology site, and one of his colleagues compares the back seat of his car, filled with books, papers and old computers, to a library landfill. His superior complains that he watches the world as if with binoculars, hiding inside his own skull. In his way Tallow is almost as weird as the hunter, and yet he's also oddly endearing, so single-minded you can't help rooting for him.
Ellis, the British author of one previous thriller, Crooked Little Vein, was a well-known and successful writer of comics and graphic novels before turning to prose fiction. (The best known among them is probably RED, which was turned into a movie starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren.) There is nothing comic-bookish about his writing, however, which races along in crisp hard-boiled fashion, and the world of the novel is less cartoonish than just odd and pretty grim. Periodically Tallow turns on his police-band radio, and what he hears is a catalogue of mayhem and atrocity: rapes, murders, disfigurements, blown-off limbs that fly through windows. "It's like disaster porn or something," a fellow cop remarks.But the world that Tallow inhabits is also blackly comic. At his local bar, for example, an imitation Irish pub, the bartender sedates the customers by showing them sumo wrestling highlights.
"The guys are crack lovers for sumo. I got big Irish guys yelling at the TV in Japanese," he explains, adding that now they don't give him trouble. Tallow fits in so well here that even though he's a regular, he's never recognised.The book's funniest characters are a geeky crime-scene team recruited to help Tallow: Scarly, short for Scarlatta, a trash-talking woman who pretends to be autistic to excuse her antisocial behaviour, and her gadget-obsessed underling Bat, who eats so little that he resembles a sickly Dickensian child.
They work in an office almost as cluttered as Tallow's apartment and complain about each other constantly. For all their eccentricity, though, these people and Tallow, unlike the rest of their bureaucratic and dysfunctional police department, are very good at what they do – so good that toward the end of Gun Machine they even undermine the book's originality.The novel turns into a more or less traditional police procedural, that is, and the resolution is violent but predictable. It is not giving away too much to say that those old standbys – corrupt police and greedy Wall Streeters – also turn out to be involved.Ellis considerately wraps everything up in a couple of explanatory pages, leaving no loose ends. Yet this neatness feels a little unsatisfying because the book's real achievement is to create a world that is so bleakly and comically out of whack that the hunter has half a point, taking refuge in a fantasy land where civilisation has yet to intrude.