Warren Ellis’s novel Gun Machine begins with a scene that immediately captures a reader’s attention: two New York detectives are called out to answer the threat of a manic naked man waving a gun at a fellow resident of a run-down tenement. The cops run up the stairs to the place where the confrontation is occurring, but one policeman stumbles as he ascends the walk-up. The crazy guy fires his gun and shoots the officer who stumbled. In a flash, the slain officer’s partner fires back, and –in unforgettable slow motion –the naked guy is taken down.
If you’re a reader like me, that scene quickly captured your attention and made you curious to read what happened next in this tumultuous story. But, as often happens in a Warren Ellis joint, the fight with the naked man is a bit of misdirection. The really important stuff isn’t happening in the hallway between the poor officer and his equally unfortunate killer.
No, the real driver for the plot is in an adjacent apartment, which has been meticulously sealed off from the rest of the building via a series of virtually unbreakable locks. Concerned that someone in the apartment may have been killed by a stray bullet, the cops break down the wall and find something they could never have expected: an apartment completely full of guns, wall to ceiling, covering nearly every space on the walls. What’s worse is that, as the ballistics team soon discovers, all of the weapons are different from each other and had all been used in unsolved murders in the city.
That’s a hell of a double-barreled hook, a mystery that Ellis uses to propel the reader through 300 action- and mystery-packed pages. But as is frequently the case with the best police novels, the focus is as much on the men tracking down the crimes as it is on the crime and criminals itself. And it’s in the area of characterization that Ellis especially shines.
As much as it is a cop story, Gun Machine is also a tale of redemption. It tells the tale of John Tallow, a complex and thoughtful figure who has been burned out by his job; bored, frustrated and just playing out the string, but a singular man with a surprising amount of internal fire and grit who finds himself changed and renewed by his pursuit of the strange killer who filled his apartment with guns.
Truth be told, the core plotline of this book was the most flat element of Gun Machine to me. Every time the mysterious killer stepped on stage with all his talk of recapturing New York for the Native Americans and his strange gun obsession, I became less interested in the book. The macguffin in this case was far less interesting than the human story that the killer facilitates, but then again I’ve always been more fascinated in normal people than their psychotic counterparts.
Gun Machine is the best kind of head-fake novel; in the service of a fairly exciting plot, Warren Ellis creates a compelling set of characters that I hope we get to meet again.