Detectives Tallow and Rosato, partners in the NYPD, are having a normal day sifting through the grotesque offences which the city serves them. Rosato is the trademark tough, no-nonsense cop replete with senses and reactions honed by years of experience although bearing a knee weakened by his wife’s insistence on taking up jogging to alleviate his mid-years spread. Tallow, well, not so much. A dedicated loner, he’s reached the mid-career malaise typical of so many on the force and is playing everything by the numbers and no more. Their next call tears the partnership apart.
By the end of the day Rosato is in a body bag, minus portions of his skull and brain. Tallow manages to take down the perpetrator, an overweight, shotgun-wielding maniac threatening to break down his landlord’s door due to an eviction notice and taking his frustration out on Rosato’s head instead. Following the shooting, Tallow winds up forcibly entering one of the apartments in the walk-up and what he discovers inside triggers a hallucinatory cat and mouse chase through the city that never sleeps.
The seemingly innocent yet improbably fortified door conceals the titular Gun Machine, an incredibly elaborate arrangement of handguns dating back hundreds of years and covering every surface. No sooner has Tallow been put on recuperative leave after the death of his partner than he finds himself reinstated. The arsenal is no ordinary collection of guns and he has unwittingly handed his lieutenant a nightmare. Every single weapon in the cache is implicated in a crime, it’s a virtual diary of hundreds of homicides, all preserved and tucked away in what should have been an impenetrable lair. Each and every one of the cases is now reopened and Tallow, weary and stressed from his partner’s death, has been saddled with the task of solving them – a mission impossible intended to be a final nail in the coffin of his career.
Mustering hidden reserves of strength and character, Tallow resolves not to thrown in the towel and commits himself body and soul to the task at hand. With help from his newfound accomplices at the CTU, Tali and Bat, he starts digging and uncovers a terrible secret. A seemingly supernatural killer, reaching out across the ages and plying his trade with impunity across Tallow’s home turf. Soon the investigation implicates some very high-up players in the city and Tallow finds himself fighting a battle on three fronts – against the killer, his conspirators and his own department.
Gun Machine is Warren Ellis’s second novel following the gleefully twisted Crooked Little Vein. Perhaps most famous for the rightful acclaimed Transmetropolitan comic series, Ellis is very comfortable fishing through the sewers of urban life. His fascination with all matters dark, especially those emanating from the human soul, comes through loud and clear in this volume. Tallow is a borderline depressive, distrusting of all human company and whose radio station of choice is the police band airing a non-stop litany of violence and degradation on New York’s streets. There is no character in this book who doesn’t have something to hide, whether a twisted vice or a collection of blood-drenched skeletons in their closet. Even the city itself becomes a dark, brooding presence ready to swallow anyone who takes a wrong turn.
It’s not all gloom and doom though. Ellis garnishes every gruesome act with enough caustic wit to dissolve any darkness before it becomes too oppressive. The double-team of Bat and Talia (a textbook sarcastic nerd and his overbearing lesbian boss) provides welcome doses of hilarious light relief in addition to the one-liners which pepper the book. Even while sapping all hope from, his characters Ellis manages to somehow retain a grim smile, teasing every bit of crooked joy he can out of their predicaments.
Gun Machine is an impressive book on many levels. As a police procedural novel it manages to avoid the well-worn cliches of the genre without straining incredulity to breaking point. At the same time it manages to be an investigation of the dark side of human nature and the sickness of modern life. And yet more, it is a redemption story of sorts, telling the tale of a man sent to the brink by fate and his own actions, yet grasping for a second chance while beset by foes on all sides. The vicious invective injected into the storyline is an added bonus, giving it a lively, wicked character where many other books of its kind fall flat. This is already shaping up to be one of the books of the year for me and it’s just a matter of time before I pick it up again for another run-through.