by BJW Nashe (Re-posted by Popular Demand)

Warren Ellis’s new novel Gun Machine swims in an ocean of guns. Probably more guns than actually exist in New York City. I don’t know for sure; I lost count while reading. The book is too much fun to worry about such trivia.

But don’t worry, Ellis’s tale isn’t some dumb exercise in gun fetishism. In fact, the novel gains serious social traction by cleverly framing and parodying the kind of gun fetishism that seems so popular among so many Americans. Gun Machine, which serves up a heady mix of high-octane thrills, idiosyncratic characters, and rough-and-ready riffs on contemporary culture, should establish Mr. Ellis as a leading figure in the new wave of crime fiction.

gun5Warren Ellis has already enjoyed considerable success as a creator of graphic novels, with series such as Stormwatch, The Authority, Transmetropolitan, and Global Frequency. His first work of prose fiction, Crooked Little Vein, appeared in 2007. The novel was widely praised for its surreal, irreverent approach to the hardboiled noir genre. If Dashiell Hammett was somehow still alive, and had spent the past decade hooked up to the internet and ingesting the hallucinogen ayahuasca, he’d probably write a book like Crooked Little Vein. It’s hard not to enjoy a private eye novel where the investigation consists of a madcap search for a secret Constitution of the United States, which was supposedly lost by Richard Nixon in a whorehouse.

Now we have Gun Machine, just released by Mulholland Books, and garnering positive reviews from the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. This second novel is arguably even better than the first one. The same weird humor and dark sensibility is on full display, but the plot line is sturdier, allowing Ellis to stretch out with his characters and dwell at greater length on various cutting-edge memes and obsessions. The fact that the novel is set in New York City is a welcome provocation. Giuliani is credited with cleaning up the city, turning Times Square into Disneyland. Bloomberg has outlawed super-sized soft drinks. But in Gun Machine Ellis is more than willing to restore some of the Big Apple’s legendary grit and sleaze. And gun control is not a significant factor in his near-future, dystopian portrait of a city in the throes of heavy “privatization.”

gun2Gun Machine has a wicked plot well worth digging into. Indeed, author Ellis may have given us one of the greatest set-ups in the history of the crime novel. His protagonist, NYPD detective John Tallow, accompanies his partner to a tenement apartment building on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. They are responding to a 911 call regarding a naked man with a shotgun on the premises. In the ensuing shootout, Tallow’s partner gets his head blown off. A subsequent search of the building leads to a shocking discovery: One of the apartments (unrelated to naked shotgun man) is full of guns. There are guns everywhere, lining the walls, all over the floor – hundreds and hundreds of guns. No, it’s not Ted Nugent’s New York getaway. Even creepier, this appears to be a bizarre pagan gun shrine, smack dab in the middle of the city. Further investigation reveals that each of the guns stored in the apartment has been used to commit a murder in New York City during the past 20 years. For instance, one of the guns once belonged to Son of Sam. Detective Tallow’s happy task is to determine who is responsible for all these guns, and any unsolved murders they are associated with. This homicide case from hell ultimately leads Tallow onto the trail of a mysterious character simply referred to as “the hunter.”

gun4Readers will decide for themselves how effectively Ellis is able to take advantage of this deranged premise. I won’t give away any spoilers. Let’s just say that Ellis pushes the story deep into the history and mythology of New York. The pacing is frenetic enough to satisfy even those of us with intractable ADD. The visceral language, unrelenting violence and black humor should be weird enough to satisfy even the most jaded among us. And best of all, Gun Machine presents us with an offbeat critique of our collective American gun fixation.


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