Famed comic book writer Warren Ellis has just published his second novel, Gun Machine, a noir detective tale set five minutes into the future, when private security companies are on the cusp of taking over police departments and mobile phones have become bendy pieces of plastic. A serial killer is on the loose in New York City, and it's up to a melancholy, book-loving detective and two goth-punk CSU geeks to solve the case. Their target is is so elusive he's almost mythical, but there are two things about the killer that the team knows for sure. He fetishizes guns almost as much as he worships the pre-industrial history of New York.
Weaving between Manhattan's pre-Colombian history and its near future, Gun Machine takes us inside the tormented minds of the killer, known only as "the hunter," and NYPD Detective John Tallow.
You'll recognize Tallow if you've read Ellis' comic Transmetropolitan, whose hard-bitten investigative journalist Spider Jerusalem lives in the near future, fighting for justice and crushing corruption — while also reveling in dystopian decadence. Like Spider, Tallow is sliding into a depression hole until he's brought back to crackling life by extreme circumstances. In Tallow's case, the detective accidentally stumbles on the creepiest crime scene he's ever found. When his partner is shot and killed, Tallow notices through his haze of grief that some of the killer's bullets have gone through the wall of a nearby apartment. He and his team break in to investigate, and discover a shrine to guns. Hundreds of guns line the walls, floor and ceiling, forming intricate patterns. Some are over a century old, and all of them turn out to be murder weapons.
Ellis' image of this pagan gun cathedral is powerful and striking, especially at a time when gun control politics are an open wound in the United States. Rich, nerve-jangling description is what Ellis does best as a writer, and there's a visceral quality to his language that works as well as a beautifully-drawn comic book panel. That is, if you are willing to admit that modified Glocks and elaborately mutilated bodies can be beautiful.
The mystery of the hunter awakens Tallow's brilliance as a detective again, forcing him to confront his traumas while also bringing him into the orbit of weirdo CSU detectives Scarly and Bat (it's short for Batmobile, he tells one character sourly). When we see through the hunter's eyes, we also get a tantalizing glimpse of New York's power structure, which emerges as a secret cartography of surveillance cameras, high finance computer networks, and, of course, deeply twisted murders.
Ellis balances the darkness of Tallow and the hunter against the goofy, pop culture-laced banter of Scarly and Bat, with mixed results. At times, it feels like Gun Machine is a fantasy where Brooklyn hipster geeks who sort of hate cops have somehow become cops. It's as if Ellis just wanted to smash together his favorite kind of plot with his favorite kind of people, even if the combination doesn't entirely make sense. Still, these characters are likable, and by the end of the novel we believe in them completely.
Perhaps the weakest part of this book is in final act, when all our questions about the bizarre hunter are slowly resolving themselves into a blob of frustratingly weak answers. Part of the problem is that Ellis' setup is so fantastic, hinting at a killer who transcends time and a conspiracy that goes back to the days when the Native American village Werpoes sprawled where the East Village is today. It would be hard for any writer to come up with an ending that does justice to that scenario, and Ellis flounders. New subplots are introduced, only to be tossed aside. The more we discover about the hunter, the less interesting he gets, until he finally becomes a kind of cliché of white guilt. But the real problem is that the conspiracy at the center of the story is never actually explained in a satisfying way.
That said, there is a lot to enjoy in Gun Machine. It's an ambitious story that grapples with New York's violent history in an evocative way — and, as I said before, the characters are Ellis' trademark lovable freaks. It's a zippy bit of grisly fun, and you won't come away disappointed.
Don't forget, tomorrow (2/5) is the io9 book club meeting to discuss Gun Machine!