Review: Gun Machine

By Warren Ellis

A hugely popular British comics writer (Ministry of Space, Transmetropolitan), Ellis has been edging ever more mainstream over the past few years. In medium, that is—his graphic novel RED became a Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren film successful enough to spawn RED 2 this August, and in 2007 critics loved his first novel, Crooked Little Vein—but not in content. The machine in the title of Ellis’s new novel doesn’t make or fire guns; rather, it consists of guns, hundreds of them, all arranged to convey a message. They’re discovered by accident after NYPD detective John Tallow kills a naked man armed with a shotgun and a random blast blows a hole in an apartment wall, revealing the shrine.

The weapons, which were notorious to begin with—including the pistol that once belonged to Son of Sam, a flintlock used in Rochester, N.Y.’s first recorded murder and the gun that had “accidentally” killed a high-ranking police officer’s daughter—had been reused for more killings. Collectively they account for two decades’ worth of unsolved Manhattan homicides.

The murders are the work of one of recent crime fiction’s most original serial killers, a casually lethal but oddly sympathetic—particularly in comparison to the men who pay him—paranoid schizophrenic who hallucinates he’s living on the island of Manhattan before the arrival of Europeans. (He subsists on squirrel meat, berries and edible tubers scavenged from Central Park.) Tallow, tasked with finding the killer in a story at once bitingly funny, absurd and weirdly realistic, is scarcely less strange or dangerous, if considerably more gentle.

Any description of Gun Machine’s complex moving parts—from how the plot turns on a combination of solid police work and preposterous coincidences to the way the perfectly named Tallow (so burnt out he’s a barely flickering candle stub) remains compelling to the mix of superb major characters and cartoonish supporting cast—makes the novel sounds like a mess. But it’s not. It’s a crystal meth police procedural with exquisite pacing and dialogue, noir for the 21st century. It’s what Raymond Chandler would be writing were he around now, drinking less and taking more drugs.

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