NYPD Detective John Tallow has had a really tough day. His partner just had his brains blown out by a naked stranger with a shotgun who Tallow then had to shoot down. As if that isn’t bad enough, he’s just discovered an apartment full of guns — mounted on every available surface like a mad man’s abacus.
Each gun turns out to be connected to an unsolved homicide spreading as far back as twenty years. Each gun appears to have been specifically chosen for its victim. Each gun has been used to kill just one person. Each gun is an artifact, a piece of code, of information forming the whorls of an insane killer’s thought process, ‘rippling patterns of gunmetal, from floor to ceiling’.
As intriguing as this apartment full of guns seems, it is a huge Pandora’s Box for Tallow, who is forced to deal with the consequences alone, in a department of under-staffed police officers. Tallow forces himself out of the ennui that has shadowed most of his professional life and throws himself into finding the man who is responsible for hundreds of seemingly unconnected deaths. With guns that have been stolen from police evidence storage facilities and even the gun used by the notorious Son of Sam, the case gets deeper and more complicated with every new piece of information Tallow unearths.
Tallow is helped by two trusty sidekicks — a pair of Crime Scene Unit officers who provide much of the comic relief in Ellis’ dark, cynical look at America’s aggressive gun culture. The incongruity of the violence posed against the flippancy of two uber-smart and socially awkward CSUs raises Gun Machine well above regular ‘serious’ crime fiction. Of course, that this is written by Warren Ellis is perhaps enough in itself to make it significantly better than standard police procedural books.
Gun Machine’s anonymous villain is known only as ‘the Hunter’ — a perfect example of how Ellis sharpens his characters down to one perfectly defining aspect. It helps Ellis maintain his relentless edge, the narrative aggressively rhythmic, and all dialogue quick fire and whip-smart.
While this is an incredibly entertaining, smart book, it is all flash and very little flesh. The actual plot is a little tenuous, and it is a little absurd how easily Tallow seems to put everything together, like a savant detective whose incredibly convenient epiphanies and experiences allow him to connect a string of incredibly convenient coincidences. It’s all of course entirely implausible but in the end, what does it matter? Gun Machine is glorious pulpy entertainment at its very best.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 3rd, 2013.
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