I’d never been to the US before this Summer. I’d seen it, hundreds of thousands of times, in movies, TV shows, comics, but I’d never actually been there. Then, in May, I hopped on a plane from Heathrow, my girlfriend hopped on a train from Delaware and we met at JFK. I had to contend with minimal leg room and slightly rubbery chicken. She had to contend with the drunk train from that episode of How I Met Your Mother. I think I got off easier.
We spent most of our time on the West Coast, in San Francisco and Fremont, but the first couple of days were all about New York. She’d scored us a ridiculous rate on a ridiculous room, 46 storeys above Times Square and that first couple of days was a little like having every fictional version of New York I’d ever had in my head dragged out, overlaid across the actual city and shown to me. The sheer density of information, real and fictional, in Manhattan is amazing, story piled on storey and everyone always moving, always intense and, unless you’re a tourist, never looking up. For context? I grew up on the Isle of Man, once memorably described as ’80,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock’. From there, I moved to York, a lovely city where absolutely no building is above ten storeys aside from the local medieval cathedral.
The smallest building I saw in Mahattan could have housed a sizable portion of the population of the Isle of Man.
So as you can imagine, New York blew my tiny little mind, not just because of its height but because of its depth. It’s a city where stories mix and wrap around one another, where the police officers of the 28th Precinct work one case whilst, a few blocks over, a new version of Sherlock Holmes works another. Above their heads, Spidermen swing from rooftop to rooftop and nearby, Stark Tower and Oscorp jostle for control of the skyline and, nearby, unobserved, a hulking man dressed in flak gear and a skull-logo t-shirt continues his methodical surveillance of his next target. Fiction meets fiction meets history meets fact. New York New York.
This idea, of New York as a hub for stories, and histories, is what lies at the heart of Warren Ellis’ new novel, Gun Machine. The novel follows Detective John Tallow, an NYPD officer quietly slumping his way through his life, content to bicker with partner Jim Rosato and lose himself in the soaring towers of history and knowledge in his head. Tallow’s an avid reader, so much so that the back seat of their car looks like a library died in it. Rosato on the other hand is a people person, or as much of a people person as an overweight homicide detective being forced to jog twice a day by his wife can be. Together they make most of a functional police officer and that officer answers a shots fired call on Pearl Street.
They go in.
One of them comes back out.
John Tallow’s story is changed forever, twice, in the space of a couple of chapters. Ellis’ description of the casual, ridiculous murder of his partner is equal parts visceral and numb, and Tallow reacts as though the gunshot is still reverberating around his mind, simultaneously waking him up and trapping him in that single, horrific moment. He’s still reeling from that when it’s pointed out that the only other shot Rosato’s killer fired blew a hole in the wall of an apparently deserted apartment. Tallow looks inside, and his story shifts once again.
Every surface, floor to ceiling, is covered with guns. On the same day John Tallow’s best, and possibly only friend, is killed, he discovers the largest cache of weapons, each tied to an unsolved murder, in history.
His lieutenant is, needless to say, displeased.
The thing that fascinates me about Gun Machine is how Ellis takes this, relatively familiar, police procedural hook and turns it on its head. Tallow doesn’t respond to Rosato’s death with horror or rage, he barely responds at all for most of the book in fact. There’s no rain soaked, on knees ‘NOOOOOO!’ moment, just a man with an impossible job using that as a bulwark between him and an event so terrible it will break him apart at the seams for a while. Which isn’t to say he’s emotionless, there are several moments where it’s made clear exactly John Tallow is horrifyingly traumatised and not letting himself see it. My favourite scene in the novel involves one of these. Late in the story, Tallow is taken for dinner by his two, mostly domesticated CSUs. Scar and Bat are a fantastic double act, cheerfully squalid with each other and fiercely, savagely proud of their work. As things build to a climax, Scar insists on feeding John, and takes him and Bat to meet her wife. You get an insight into this oddly shaped but highly successful family group; Tallie is the dominant matriarch, Scar is the erratic submissive and Bat is the cheerfully disgusting baby brother and all of them accept Tallow without breaking stride. For the first time in the novel he’s not just noticed, he’s respected and welcomed and it drops his guard to the point where he almost breaks down. Ellis, for all the ‘Unleash the Cockmonkeys!’ stuff that surrounds him, is quietly one of the most humane, compassionate writers in comics and this scene is a perfect illustration of that. John Tallow’s home, just for a while, and the realization he can relax almost cracks him in two.
This almost tribal approach to the police procedural’s usual cast of characters sets Tallow, Scar and Bat as a band apart; erratic geniuses who are getting the job done despite the best efforts of their opponents and superiors. Again, done wrong, this could be the worst kind of table-thumping pseudo cop story but, again, Ellis takes it very unexpected places. The case is so big, so terrifying, that for a while at least, they’re left alone because they’re the only people brave enough to look it in the eye. When the opposition finally comes, and it does, they find themselves faced not only with surprising allies but a choice so simple it’s almost never said out loud; they could walk and save their jobs, or they could stay and see it through to the end. It’s no choice at all and that sort of quiet heroism in the face of near total opposition is something Ellis excels at.
A good detective story is only as good as its killer and Gun Machine has an exceptional killer, in every way. The Hunter is only ever referred to as that, because it doesn’t just define him, it encompasses his identity in both the case and the book. The Hunter is the owner of the apartment crammed with guns and his chapters have a lyricism and rounded feel to them that Tallow’s spiky, numb, caffeine-seeking New York does not. The Hunter is trapped between two New Yorks, the modern one he is forced to live in and the old, unspoiled island of Manhatta, that he aspires to. His hallucinations constantly paint over one another and he’s never quite in a single version of the city, always seeing wolves instead of cars, lamp posts instead of trees. His story is cut away from under him when Tallow discovers the apartment and he spends the rest of the novel trying to get it back, rebuilding his violent past in a repeating cycle of hunt, kill, forage, survive. He’s a fascinating figure, completely terrifying in some ways and desperately sad in others, a monster building his own story a shattered body at a time. Completely insane, but with none of the histrionics a lesser novel would hang off him, his shadow falls across every chapter, and every other character, you meet.
Gun Machine is a novel about stories, and what happens when they change beneath you. John Tallow’s story takes a turn for the better, but goes through abject horror to do it, Scar and Bat’s story is enriched by the presence of possibly the only NYPD officer odder than they are and the Hunter’s story runs beneath all of them, defined by the dull machine polished glow of gun barrels, and the smell of tobacco plants. A knot of stories that mix and fold around one another to create a unique, and uniquely involving thriller, Gun Machine is an exceptional novel whether you’re a fan of Ellis or not. New York is a city made of stories, and this is definitely one of its finest.