The Gun Machine
The last novel I read by Warren Ellis was Crooked Little Vein back in 2008 which was something of a surrealistic conspiracy laden noir that was enjoyable even if left me feeling a bit dirty after having read it. Back in January Ellis released another novel Gun Machine. My somewhat sullied feeling aside having read Ellis’ previous novel I practically jumped at chance to grab a copy when it was released and devoured the novel over the course of two days. In Gun Machine a routine call about a disturbance leaves Detective John Tallow absent a partner and with a troubling and enigmatic case on his hands: a locked apartment full of guns each one tied to an unsolved homicide case.
Ellis definitely gets a nod for taking what amounts to a locked room mystery and twisting into a barely recognizable shape. In your typical locked room mystery the “impossible” murder has taken place inside a locked room that the killer could never have entered or escaped. In this case the locked room doesn’t hold a single murder but rather the clues to many different murders. Much like in the traditional locked room mystery Tallow is driven by the clues offered by the guns to find a rational explanation for their presence. However, in typical Ellis fashion that rationale is both twisted and touched with a hint of insanity.
Detective Tallow starts the novel as your sort of everyday working stiff; a man who lives on the edges of the existence and is just going through the motions. The death of his partner at the start of the novel and the mystery it reveals act as a catalyst for Tallow and his behavior over the course of the novel feels something like that of a sleeping man waking up. His early investigations are stiff and a bit stunted but as more and more connections with the cache of firearms are revealed he really comes to life and there is a genuine sense of evolution in his approach to both his own life and his job. A large part of that change is Tallow’s evolving relationship with the two investigators in the Crime Scene Unit whom he meets early in the novel. Tallow and the techs make rather odd bed-fellows to be sure. Tallow, even at the start of the novel, feels like a very solitary creature. Detached from reality and going through the motions of reality his relationship with the Crime Scene techs furthers helps to draw him out of his shell.
Tallow’s detached relationship to the world around him definitely helps in playing him against The Hunter the somewhat surrealistic mostly crazy “villain” of Gun Machine. There are similarities between the two characters in their approach to living that reveal them as two sides of the same coin. I felt like given different circumstances Tallow could definitely have been the same as the Hunter. Ellis only plays with this notion lightly; almost so that I think I might have imagined it, but the initial solitary nature of both characters makes me think that I’m not reading into things too much.
While Gun Machine offers a more straight-forward approach to crime fiction the plot of the novel often leans quite heavily on coincidence and chance encounters. The novel has a scripted feel to it and there times that coincidence brushes up right against the edges of credulity. For myself it never really crosses the line into incredulity and Ellis’ writing and characters manage to carry away any concerns I might have. While Ellis is well-known for his work in comics I definitely would like to see a more frequent output of prose novels. Gun Machine is a well-crafted and entertaining novel that goes in a direction that I’ve never really scene in crime fiction. More from Ellis is always welcome and I recommend any fans of crime fiction, particularly noir and hard-boiled crime fiction, give Gun Machine a try.