It’s funny how you can pinpoint the exact moment a book grabs you in a headlock, forcing you to finish it no matter what. This happened to me on page 19 of Warren Ellis’ visceral cop-thriller Gun Machine, which contains one of the punchiest (and funniest) passages of dialogue I’ve read in a long time:
The women in Tallow’s life all informed him that he habitually awoke with a form of Tourette’s. For the first hour of the day, he was incapable of summoning reserve, patience or social skills.
Tallow assaulted the cell phone and answered it with ‘The fuck what.’
‘Come into the office.’
‘Fucking mandated forty-fucking-eight fucking hours woke me the fuck up for.’
‘CSU just got done with a sampling of your guns. I’m sorry, John, I know I told you forty-eight hours, but I need you in here now.’
‘Fuck. All right. Yes. Shit. Give me an hour.’
‘Thirty minutes. And be human when you get here. I’m cutting you a degree of slack right now, but I will take a big steaming shit all over your personal record if you talk to me like that again.’
‘Yes. All right. Lieutenant goes away now. I wake up. Yes.’
‘Thirty minutes, Detective.’
Gun Machine is the story of New York detective John Tallow, a man who (in the words of his boss) is at an age ‘where the rush of the job has passed and… you’re wondering if it wouldn’t be so bad if you just stopped giving much of a shit and rolling along doing as little as possible.’ Unfortunately, this is a choice that is about to be wrenched away from Tallow – in the opening pages of the novel, he sees his partner killed in front of him by a shotgun wielding maniac.
In the aftermath Tallow stumbles across an apartment, empty except for the fact that every surface is decorated with guns. ‘Rippling patterns of gunmetal from floor to ceiling. In the stale, faintly perfumed air of the room, Tallow felt almost like he could be in a church.’ It emerges that each one is implicated in a different homicide; and driven by guilt at his partner’s murder, Tallow begins to unlock the mystery behind the gun machine of the title, and the killer behind two decades’ worth of unsolved homicides. It’s a trail that will lead Tallow into the distant and hidden history of Manhattan itself.
Ellis started his creative career writing comics, and this shows in Gun Machine with his efficient, no fat approach to directing the plot. It’s a very visceral book, full of the sights, smells and moods of New York, and probably not one for the squeamish; there’s a great deal of violence here, and the action sequences are extremely well-written. Ellis also ensures that they are an integral part of the overall narrative structure, and don’t feel overdone or gratuitous. There’s clearly a brain at work behind them, albeit one that’s likely to be shortly splattered across a dirty tenement wall.
Tallow is engagingly idiosyncratic as a protagonist. Literate, smart and unyielding as a brick wall, it’s a real treat watching him regain his cop mojo through the course of the novel. Tallow is a man who can handle himself no matter who he comes up against, whether high-ranking police officers, millionaire businessmen or nerdy crime scene investigators. It’s in these dialogue exchanges that the novel crackles with energy and electricity, and they are one of the novel’s many highlights. So it’s only appropriate that I leave the last word to Tallow himself, who gives a fine insight into his personal philosophy when threatened by a jumped-up private security guard:
‘No,’ said Tallow. ‘The difference is that sometimes you take off that shiny uniform with the Kevlar weave that some liar probably told you was bulletproof, and that great big gun that’s never been fired at anything but a paper target, and you dress like a regular guy and take your days off and go out in the world like you’re a normal person. Right? I’m a New York City police officer. I don’t live like a normal person. I don’t take days off. Ever. So when you see me in the street , the way you’ve been dreaming of doing for the last five minutes, you think about that. You have a good long think about that before you ever take one step closer to me.’