The book’s title is one which caused me to do a double take when I saw it. Gun Machine is such an unusual flopping of word order. Isn’t it supposed to be “Machine Gun”? In so many ways, this juxtaposition is a perfect lead in for the novel.
I’ve never been a big comic book fan. My readings have always been the mainstream ones, Batman, Spiderman, and even… Richie Rich. Look, as a little kid, I really enjoyed the Richie Rich stories. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. Being that I’m not a comic book guy, I never really knew about Warren Ellis until just a few years ago. I think it was Boing Boing which introduced me to him, and since then I’ve followed him online and subscribed to his blog. So when I heard about his new novel: Gun Machine, I knew I needed to add it to my already towering stack of books to read.
Yesterday, taking advantage of a quiet morning I sat down and submerged myself in the Gun Machine. We’re introduced to John Tallow, or ‘Tallow’ as he’s most frequently referred to in the novel, is a cop with an unusual love of history and books and a loner. He also goes out of his way to be a loner. He never even met the wife of his partner over the 18 months they worked together. His cop car is loaded down with books, papers, and print outs such that it actually occupies much of the car’s back seat. We learn that Tallow is a cop who’s over it, or quite nearly over it.
Opposite Tallow we’re introduced to ‘The Hunter,’ a mystic or mad man — we’re never quite sure — who lives in New York City alongside Tallow. Where Tallow lives in the daylight, The Hunter exists in the shadows of the city going so far as to map and track CCTV cameras such that he can travel the city with minimal exposure. He sees the city in a disorienting hybrid of reality and some pre-civilized grass-covered landscape and repeatedly we see him deal with mental discord as some anachronism rushes through the opposite setting such as a car careening through a pastoral valley. We’re unsure for much of the book what exactly the story and truth around this mysterious person is, and Ellis masterfully unfolds his story alongside Tallow’s own discoveries. What we learn quickly is that The Hunter is a masterful killer with no conscience to speak of.
The intersection between Tallow and The Hunter is the book’s titular reference, a room filled with guns. Not just a closet or workshop but a full apartment unit which has its walls covered with guns arranged in interlocking patterns.
After Tallow’s partner and he answer a call concerning a naked and armed apartment resident, a fateful shotgun blast reveals the room of guns. Here is a wonderful trailer for the book below narrated by Wil Wheaton and drawn by Ben Templesmith. The video is an excerpt from the novel where the room of guns is discovered and described.
Joss Whedon has said that, in his mind, Serenity was one of the main characters on Firefly. I find myself feeling the same way about the gun room in Gun Machine. So central is it to the plot and the story, so important for how it holds this plot’s web together, it would be a major fallacy to overlook how crucial this room is. Even after the room itself is disassembled and collected for evidence, Tallow reconstructs the room using photos such that he can recreate the effect the room had on him. They lay out photos and printings of the guns, papering walls and the floor in the CSU building, such that he is able to do “cop voodoo.” The Hunter was forced to watch as his creation was disassembled, repeatedly he considers storming in and simply killing the people disassembling his masterpiece, only to stop himself out of a desire to remain unseen.
The discovery of this room reopens hundreds of closed cold-case files. An event which, even when the police force had the manpower, would prove daunting. During a time where the cops are strapped for people and money (which is always it seems) it becomes a political chess piece. Tallow’s lieutenant despite her apparent fondness for Tallow, saw his diminishing will for the job and decided to hang the albatross of a room around his neck and let him be the fall guy for it. One man versus hundreds of cold cases versus a true bogey-man of a serial killer. We discover that despite her expectation that he will fail, she supports him and even the Captain of the precinct supports him even though he expects failure and the case to be the executioner’s axe.
The discovery of the room also leads Tallow into a web that goes beyond just the 200 murders, it uncovers a larger plot with more important players. But, despite that, it is still central to these two men — Tallow and The Hunter.
The city that Ellis portrays is a grim, bloody, animalistic city. Tallow listens to the police scanner while he drives and thus is constantly awash in the horrible things happening around the city. There are stories of rapes, murder-suicides, robberies, and more. It’s a city vastly darker than the glamorous New York so often shown even in the cop shows on TV. This is a city that I would be terrified to go out in lest I end up on the wrong end of a mugging.
This sort of mystery is the one I most enjoy where it isn’t a matter of finding the key to solving it, it’s a matter of focus. We, as a reader, know we have the frame and perspective, it’s only as Ellis carefully shows us what we’re looking at does it snap into focus.
It’s a quick read, with 280 pages, I finished it in a single morning. The narrative moves quickly and I definitely felt the pull to continue at the end of each chapter. I encourage you to read this book if you like mysteries or enjoy Ellis’ graphic novels.
It’s also worth noting that the rights for the book have already been sold to Fox, so perhaps we’ll see John Tallow face the Hunter on TV. I could see it being the basis for a crime procedural series, or maybe just a movie. But we’ll see if it pops up in the next few years.
Let me know what you think! I tried to keep this review spoiler-free despite the constant tugging for me to dive deeper into the plot. Shoot me an email
- New York Times by Charles McGrath
- Publisher’s Weekly by Jason Starr (on Warren’s blog)
- The Independent by Laura Sneddon
- The AV Club by Phil Dyess-Nugent
Header image from 1yen on Flickr.