In his book about the history of Marvel Comics, Sean Howe notes that the practice of writing comic-book dialogue in capital letters, with exclamation points at the end of every sentence, dates back to the days when the inking process was so crude and unreliable that there was no other way to guarantee that the words would be legible. But while that style is now an anachronism, some writers, like Warren Ellis (The Authority, Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency) still take it to heart. In Ellis’ world, everything is all-caps, all the time, and any character who can ask for a cup of coffee in a way that doesn’t call for at least one exclamation point is a spoilsport. Gun Machine, Ellis’ second prose novel, is in exactly the same style and spirit as his comics; like his first novel, Crooked Little Vein, it gives the impression that Ellis didn’t write it as a comic only because pictures would have slowed down the action.
Ellis’ years of working the pulpy side of the street have made him a brash genius at getting readers’ attention. Gun Machine’s opening sentence perfectly sets its wry, in-your-face tone: “On playing back the 911 recording, it’d seem that Mrs. Stegman was more concerned that the man outside her apartment door was naked than that he had a shotgun.” Sadly, Mrs. Stegman never appears in the story, and the naked man with the shotgun is only a plot device, a rampaging lunatic whose services are needed to get the story rolling. In the process of taking him down, the hero, New York City police detective and hard-bitten loner John Tallow, discovers an apartment in a condemned building with dozens of guns on the walls and floors, some of them “mounted in rows,” others “in complex swirls.” Each has been used in a murder, some of them going back two decades. One gun turns out to be a missing piece of evidence from the Son Of Sam killings.
With such a juicy grabber of a setup, Ellis doesn’t much bother with fleshing out the details of his conspiracy plot, or making it halfway plausible. The villain, who has been killing people at the behest of a cabal of high-profile New Yorkers for 20 years without being detected, is a delusional, raving nut who lives off the grid, imagines that his actions are part of some mystic ritual performed in the name of the Native Americans who had Manhattan taken from them, and talks with the exaggerated formality of Bane applying for a home-equity loan.
Ellis also doesn’t bother with much of a cast of characters. It almost goes without saying that Tallow loses his partner in the big shootout at the beginning, and his bosses and all the other cops in the precinct hate his guts, for reasons never clearly specified, but which align neatly with genre convention. So the only company Tallow has for most of the book comes from the pair of Crime Scene Unit investigators assigned to the case. Ellis ushers them onstage with a flurry of exposition about how CSU investigators are the weirdest people alive, then has the time of his life living up to his own hype. The senior investigator, Scarly, is a mean-mouthed lesbian who hits on women in bars to bring out the lusty jealousy in her Scandinavian-Amazon wife. (Ellis uses their titillating relationship to give the book some sexiness without having to deal with actual sex.) The less colorful number, Bat, explains that he’s proud to be CSU instead of a cop because “I solve things. I hunt and build and solve things with science. You know what a New York City cop does? Beats protesters. Rapes women.”
Gun Machine is the crime novel stripped down to pure flashiness. In the end, it doesn’t come to much, but it moves incredibly fast, especially considering that it’s all empty calories—just what many people are in the mood for during the post-Christmas winter blahs. It’s the perfect book to start reading during an airplane flight; it can be finished by the time the plane lands, and left behind in the luggage rack without regret.