Technoir at Light Speedby Ben Pfeiffer
(Mulholland Books, 2013)
From the opening moments, when a naked man with a shotgun kills Detective John Tallow’s partner in a burst of intoxicating gore, Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine takes the reader into several ghost maps laid out over New York City like superimposed squares of vellum. Tallow begins his case at the very crime scene where his partner dies after discovering that, in the next apartment, someone has been stashing guns going back 20 years. This is the gun machine.
The weapons—all previously used in notorious murders, some lovingly restored—range from antique flintlocks to a .44 Bulldog, like the one used by the Son of Sam. As Tallow and his partners in the Crime Scene Unit explore the forensic ballistics of each gun, they discover they’ve been used to kill only one person, and were involved in hundreds of unsolved murders that span decades. Before long, Tallow’s own unhinged brain—both traumatized and liberated by the death of his partner—begins to imagine a conspiracy that threatens to reach through the veil and implicate powerful members of New York’s élite.
The killer, known as “the hunter,” complicates the plot by moving through his own map in crosscut chapters, appearing to move between the time periods of Old and New Manhattan. Whether he’s a ghost or a schizophrenic isn’t clear. Early on, he meditates near a pay phone, trying to keep himself in the present moment:
The change for the phone flickered in his upturned palm. One moment coins, the next moment seashells. The hunter set his jaw, clamped down on his perception, and the coins stayed coins long enough for him to force them into the thin mouth of the machine.
As the case’s connections begin to form a map of their own—the gun machine and its work—Tallow must rely on his new partners at the Crime Scene Unit, Bat, a neurotic genius, and Scarly, a take-no-shit lesbian. Together, they disassemble the gun machine, which, Tallow realizes, is a tapestry itself, a work of art that tells the story of the man who created it. The resulting book is funny, smart, and inventive, punctuated by unspeakable violence. The slaughter appears as part of the narrative action, but also decorates the recursive scenery, particularly through Detective Tallow’s police scanner, which vomits a never ending stream of horror through his dashboard.
Ellis’s prose fits the plot, because it reimagines the tropes found in the best detectivefiction. His protagonist lives in a world of smart phones, novelty sex robots, tablet computers, and wi-fi pods; his enemies understand the dynamics of this digital ecosystem better than he does, but they can’t match him for disconnectedness. His advantage is that, while he dimly understands their world, he hasn’t completely linked his electrons up with it. In many ways, he mirrors the hunter himself, inhabiting both the 21st century and the hardboiled 1930s. This makes the book chiaroscuro—a collection of bold contrasts made with alternating pools of light and darkness—as opposed to classic noir. Or, to put it another way, Gun Machine is noir at light speed.
This technoir style describes much of the interaction between characters. For example, early on, when Tallow interviews a Wall Street executive, he is schooled on the subject of “pingback,” the time it takes information to travel back and forth to the New York Stock Exchange in the surrealistic atlas of global commerce: “The real maps of the great cities of the world are invisible. They’re underfoot, or they’re wi-fi fields, or they’re satellite links. On a global basis, the financial markets’ biggest problem is the speed of light.”
But the novel also revels in context and history, from the origins of Pearl Street to the enigmatic Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, eccentric hoarders who died in their Harlem Brownstone alongside 140 tons of debris. Both John Tallow and the hunter have what Bat calls “history fu”: the ability to see history and to understand its impact on and relationship to the present. Thus, as the book investigates Manhattan’s future, it also describes the arc of Manhattan’s own etiological myth.
Every cylinder of Gun Machine gets loaded with something for both casual readers and casehardened fans of the detective genre. The action, characters, structure, and syntax travel with the speed of photons and connect with the unsentimental impact of hollow point rounds. Until the very last page, Ellis pulls the trigger on each and every one—sometimes taking his time to aim, sometimes shooting from the hip—but always hitting his mark.