Written by David Oglesby
To explain what Gun Machine is is simple: After a horrific shoot out that leaves his partner dead, by chance,detective John Tallow stumbles upon an unbelievable cache of guns in an apartment, all of which are tied to unsolved murders from the past two decades. However, that is where the simplicity ends and the Ellis kicks in; Warren Ellis, a prolific writer in the comics medium, turns his eye towards the detective genre with a keen notion to dismantle it and reassemble it in a way that only he can, full of grit and grime and that (assumedly patented) Ellis Charm. For those of you familiar with Ellis from his work in things like “Transmetropolitan” or “Planetary,” prepare to see something much more down to Earth yet still somehow lost in the clouds.
The first thing that’s noticeable about the book is how honestly unlike Ellis it is. Ellis’ last novel, Crooked Little Vein, featured its lead attempting to find a secret US Constitution while still having time to observe that Godzilla-bukake is a thing. Yet in this one, there’s nothing in it that you couldn’t find in the sane world, even if we’re given a look at it from a slightly warped vantage point. This is an actual hard-boiled detective story, with John Tallow being forced out of his reserved shell to solve an impossible case. There are still things in the book that are very much part of Ellis’ staple arsenal – the view of the general population is cynical, there’s a keen futuristic eye focused on a new iteration of Big Brother – but all things considered, this is the most grounded story Ellis has written in a long time, pulling all the insane aspects in from places decidedly human. It’s the type of Ellis that the person who is unfamiliar with his work could access and enjoy, without any additional caveats of, “Well, you should probably know something before you read this…” (which is something I’ve had to say before recommending Crooked Little Vein to non-comic readers).
Tallow himself is a rather curious protagonist. Truth is, he’s really not likable. He’s not a Sam Spade or anything along those lines; rather, he’s a more neurotic man who spends a large majority of the book worrying about his own mental sanity when placed against the insanity of the case he’s assigned to. It’s a great juxtaposition, as Tallow’s own mind suffers from a disconnect from the rest of the world, leading to his observations and interactions with other people giving us a different view of New York than we’ve been accustomed to from the more average detective novel. The more you read into Gun Machine, the more vivid Tallow’s world view becomes and we begin to connect with him in an oddly close way; his imperfections make him a that much more realistic, and his actions – no matter how laborious or curious they may be at times – are all recognizable.
The contrast with the books antagonist The Hunter also helps Tallow’s case (pun intended). Ellis pulls a rather clever trick in that he uses two very distinct voices in order to split the story when showing us how these two opposing forces circle around one another. Tallow is Ellis as we’ve come to know him, full of dark humor and no punches pulled when it comes to displaying a somewhat cynical view, but The Hunter is something else. He has to be – his world is not our world; where Tallow looks at a person and makes a jaded judgement call, the Hunter doesn’t even see a person. It’s through The Hunter that Ellis mainly gets to shine in the book, as odd as that sounds, because through this character Ellis gets to push all his limits. Ellis has written his fair share of mad men and anti-heroes before, certainly, but the cold and precise nature of The Hunter and the fact that we get to see so clearly into his head makes the book such a dark, fascinating and engrossing read. It makes you honestly wonder what a book from Ellis written primarily from a villainous character like The Hunter might read as.
Yet, even though this is Ellis’ second novel, there are still quite a few cracks around the edges. Ellis’ use (or lack thereof) of detail in some scenes can leave the reader wanting, and in others the dialogue doesn’t feel natural. More specifically, every main character sounds like a Warren Ellis Character in a Warren Ellis Story, in that they’re a little off, a little sassy, a little angry and full of knowledge. This in turn leads to one of the books only major flaws, in that there is a fair deal of info-dump in place of actual dialogue; certain characters just happen to know things at the right point in time, which lead to monologues of information so that the reader can be brought to the same page and help solve the case. It’s effective to a point, but it gives the book an uneven vibe, where some scenes see Tallow having overly quirky banter with other characters like Bat and Scarly and others feature him being lectured on New York history for a few paragraphs by a character he just met. It’s one thing when Ellis is writing the X-Men and adjusting them all to his vision, but the inherent grounded nature of Gun Machine doesn’t play that card as smoothly.
The other main issue the book has is its uneven pace. On the one hand, it works: the book opens with short and static chapters that eventually get longer and intensify as the book goes on. Ellis even develops a cleverly inserted way to pass time for all those scenes where Tallow just has to drive places, rather than say “Tallow got in his car, and then got out of his car at the place he needed to be.” On the other hand, there are many instances where the book doesn’t feel fully fleshed out. Scenes will cut a corner as Tallow jumps from clue to clue, and some conclusions and resolutions are brought about too quickly to have a major impact on the read. There are even a few characters who are important to the story that are just introduced too late for the reader to make a connection to them, so when some puzzle pieces start falling to place and the bigger picture is revealed the shock value is very minimal. This might be a casualty of switching from comic to novel, though, where one medium celebrates showing not telling and the other needs telling and showing both.
But despite these things that may seem to take away from the enjoyment of the book in any other situation, you can’t help but feel that that is actually somewhat the point. The biggest idea the book seems to have is that real detective work is not as flashy and sexy as it is on TV, nor should it ever be. There aren’t any hidden aspects of sexual tension and you don’t’ solve a crime by giving it to one department to solve within an hour. We’ve been conditioned with shows like NCIS, CSI and Castle to think that police work is fun and flashy, yet is anything but (with a humorous line of dialogue calling that out thrown in about halfway through the book); it’s more like the Wire (another thing Ellis isn’t afraid to mention), and it isn’t pretty. The real work is hard, and the odds are against you, and sometimes it all just seems rather insane and impossible to deal with. Gun Machine is the anti-cop show, and that helps a lot of the flaws – assumedly only really flaws because of exterior conditioning in storytelling – feel less egregious. Sorry, Nathan Fillion, but there’s no room for your charm here.
Ultimately, Gun Machine is a pretty great read. Ellis’ familiar writing style doesn’t convert as smoothly to a book that isn’t as crazy as Crooked Little Vein, so when approaching the serious subject matter that this book covers not everything ends up translating well at the end. But even with that knowledge, there is so much to like about Gun Machine anyway – it’s smart, it’s ridiculously clever, it’s expertly woven together, it bucks all traditions for detective novels and it’s something only Warren Ellis can give us, full of ideas you’d never think of on your best day writing. The story of an uncatchable madman hasn’t been this enjoyable or twisted since Thomas Harris wrote Silence of the Lambs.
More John Tallow, please.