Review: Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis

images>>Published: January 2013

>>Finally got around to it: June 2013

Scarly folded her arms. Leaned away from Tallow. Everything about her, in fact, seemed to Tallow to be closing up. “This ain’t getting solved, Detective.”

“You think?”

“If this guy was gonna be caught,” Scarly said, “he would have been caught already. You know what you did when you put a hole in that wall? You interrupted the career of a genuine fucking bogeyman, some crazy-ass ghost-dog serial killer who filled a room with his fucking trophies to jerk off over. He’s never going to go back there. And you know what else? He’s going to start killing again, probably more and more quickly than before, so he can generate another trophy room slash jerking pit. Not only is this not getting solved but more people are gonna get killed because of it, and we won’t catch him after those either because this guy is just too damned good. All you did, Detective, is find the home address of the Devil in New York City, and now he’s moved someplace else.”


Detective John Tallow is having a shitty week. Upon answering what should have been a pretty routine call, a screaming naked man with a shotgun managed to paint his partner’s brains all over the wall of an apartment building stairwell. In taking the assailant down, Tallow accidentally uncovers a locked apartment filled floor-to-ceiling with guns, carefully, deliberately arranged.  Further inspection reveals the disturbing truth: each of the approximately two hundred weapons has been used in an unsolved murder within the city. These weapons, their true purpose unknown, have been ritualistically collected and stored—to what end is the question Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine attempts to answer.

Gun Machine is a fast-paced mix of noir and police procedural thriller. Tallow feels like a man a bit torn between the two ends of the spectrum. At first he’s your classic rough-around-the-edges cop, but with a soft, nougat-like centre (see: “the hooker with a heart of gold”). When he loses his partner, he’s thrown headlong into what’s deemed at first an unsolvable catastrophuk of a case, which quickly becomes the one and only thing in his life worth caring about. Why? Because it’s entirely possible he’s stumbled upon the weapon’s cache of the greatest unknown serial killer in history—who may or may not be responsible for the stratospheric rise to power of several New York City power players and captains of industry.

The killer himself is only ever referred to as “the Hunter” (a wise decision which retains his bogeyman-like status, even when stripped of his more surrealistic elements). He’s a possessive creature who embeds his work with a degree of false symbolism, comparing what he’s doing to the construction of a living memory, not unlike a Native American wampum belt—crafting a modern footprint of capitalism-cum-colonialism. The Hunter’s mission, as he sees it, places him within a society he’s forever removed from—something alien, unnatural, created in a lab. To this effect, his fascination with Native American history, and the history of New York, informs his very being.

The hunt for the owner of the gunroom is only a small portion of Gun Machine’s appeal. What really sells the book is the banter between Scarly and Bat—the two crime scene investigators assigned (condemned) to aid Tallow in his search for answers. These two fiercely intelligent individuals—a self-proclaimed autistic lesbian with possible fidelity issues and a technologically inclined shut-in with questionable people skills—are laugh-out-loud hilarious without ever feeling forced or put in position for the sole purpose of adding a little levity to the proceedings. Case in point:

“No,” spat Scarly. “It got handed off to us. Which makes perfect sense, because what you really want on a job like this is as much confusion in the evidence chain as possible. And I guess me and Bat hadn’t eaten our ration of crap for the year. So here I am, with a career-ending job and a working partner with the magical talent of making guns shit themselves in his face.”

Without question, Ellis’ greatest strength as a writer is his ability to write genuinely funny/sarcastic/quick-witted dialogue that never feels out of place alongside the story and world that have been pieced together. The chapters are, for the most part, short and very visual, and a strange collection of New York City history and rumours litter the book with a colour all its own—as blood soaked as any respectable noir, but seen through a light historical lens not often used for such a tale. Police scanner chatter is used to backdrop the openings and conclusions of several chapters, in essence white-noising the terrible nature of the Hunter by depicting a city so cruel, so vile that the Hunter’s more direct killings, which lack the considerable collateral damage of so many of the other crimes we see rattled off, seem positively clean by comparison. And when one of the Hunter’s crimes does find its way into the scanner chatter, it doesn’t stand out as particularly cruel or gruesome—just another act of violence within the borders of an already red-drenched city.

If I had any complaint about Gun Machine, it would be that we’re told over and over again what an asshole, what an unmitigated pain in the rectum Tallow is, and how much his lieutenant would love to string an unsolvable case around his neck just for the excuse to put him out to pasture, yet we never see it—we never get more than a glimpse at the supposed dick Tallow is or has been in the past. We get little bits here and there referencing how and why he was paired with his specific partner, but Tallow honestly feels more sympathetic than practically any other character in the novel, save for Bat. It’s a bit of narrative dissonance that only slightly mars what is otherwise one of the better thrillers I’ve read over the past year or two. The overarching mystery itself won’t turn any heads for its originality, but the language, interaction, and pacing make Gun Machine a fun and worthwhile way to lose track of a few hours.

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