By Warren Ellis
Some potboilers transcend their status, marking themselves as curios to be absorbed, or not, into whatever passes for the classics when a new critical generation creeps along. Others inhabit their genre with stolid assurance, boring those who read too many of them and delighting neophytes (or perhaps it’s the other way around?). Finally come the sloppy, the carcasses, the diseased that mimic predecessors, flail, hump the reader’s leg. (These become classics often enough, too.) Then there’s Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine.
It’s a psychogeography of Lower Manhattan via the medium of gun violence, a compendium of Ellis digressions (CCTV, ghost maps of 21st-century finance, the meaning of crime shows), and a police procedural both intricately researched and ludicrously heightened. Yet it doesn’t fully inhabit, or deliver on the promise of, any of these things. Similarly, Ellis can sketch minor characters with precision and great empathy, yet hang assumed emotional weight and narrative import on major characters who seem little more than conduits for Ellisspeak, a shouty, lax, anti-human humor refined in his seminal comic series Transmetropolitan. Ellis can be blunt, witty, and evocative simultaneously, and without trying too hard: “The uniform had found another uniform, and together they had unhappily carried the ram upstairs, blistered black paint over blue metal.” Elsewhere, Ellis (who is very English) describes an NYC hipster steak-sandwich joint so well that it almost hurts. He can also drag on for far too long setting up an assault.
Does this make Gun Machine—which, briefly, details the finding of a room full of guns, each used in the commission of a deeply strange murder in New York City in roughly the last quarter of a century, and the attendant fall out (a conspiracy, a serial killer named, thankfully, the hunter and not The Hunter)—a curio, a workman-like piece of entertainment, or a failure? Kind of all three. It’s superior to Ellis’s first novel, Crooked Little Vein, and far more interesting than your average serial killer/conspiracy thriller. If Ellis continues to follow this upward trajectory of quality, his third novel (currently in progress) could be as good as the comics by which he made his name.