Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

John Tallow is having a bad day.

While responding to a routine 911 call, John’s partner is killed and he is forced to shoot a naked man who is clearly suffering a mental break. During the commotion, a stray bullet has been shot into the wall of a locked apartment, and if anyone was inside, they’re not responding. Giving the order to break down the door, NYPD Detective Tallow discovers the religion of a mad man. They cover every surface and are arranged in intricate patterns. The apartment is full of guns.

To make matters worse, it is quickly discovered that each of the recovered weapons can be matched to an unsolved homicide dating back 20 years. Some guns are new and can quickly be connected to a New York crime. Others are far older and their origins prove more of a mystery. One of the guns belonged to the Son of Sam.

John Tallow is having a bad day.

While following Detective Tallow’s investigation into the collection of guns, we are introduced to a variety of interconnected characters whose motives come across as murky at best. There is the director of a large financial corporation bent on squeezing every penny out of Wall Street by whatever means necessary. There is the owner of a security company whose wife has discovered his secrets and has suffered terribly for it. There is the Crime Scene Unit technician who fakes being autistic to excuse her inept social behaviours. And there are the myriad of NYPD employees who may or may not be loyal to the department.

At the center of this web is the hunter, a man more at home in the wild than in the modern city. Able to see both present day New York and the pre-colonial landscape that existed before Dutch colonization, the hunter moves freely in both worlds, appearing to belong to neither. As more information comes to light about the apartment and his connection to it, the extent of the hunter’s participation becomes clearer, but new questions arise as to who he is and what is driving him.

Gun Machine is a gritty work of fiction that reads like a police procedural, but award-winning graphic novelist Warren Ellis’ ability to weave a subtle element of fantasy into the story sets this mystery apart. Fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files may be drawn to the plot, but don’t expect a fully realized blending of our world and the supernatural. Gun Machine is a bit of an experiment in genre-bending, and the story will appeal as much to mainstream mystery fans as it does to those looking for fantasy.

The alternating narrative style between Tallow and the hunter makes for a fast-paced story, full of intrigue and dramatic tension. Ellis’ strength as a storyteller comes across in direct prose that doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions and expletive dialogue. His experiences as a graphic novelist are evident throughout the story as the details of the environment come to life in a vivid and jarring way. The result is a New York City that is bleak and unforgiving and full of criminal potential.

While some readers may shy away from a story about a detective on the hunt for a serial killer, Ellis proves that a procedural can be surprising and unexpected. His characters exist in their world as completely organic, fleshed out people whose interaction is as natural as it is unpredictable. This is evident as the story begins to take shape, but as the novel progresses, things begin to develop much as you would expect them to.

The hint of the fantastic that made this novel an exciting prospect at the outset begins to fade into Tallow’s investigation. Towards the end of the novel, events begin to occur at breakneck speed, and readers are forced to suspend their disbelief that any investigation could progress this quickly. The conclusion comes in a flurry of action contained in the final few pages, but the ending falls flat when everything comes together in a nice neat bow.

Gun Machine was eagerly anticipated before its release, and was featured in a number of lists highlighting new and noteworthy books to come in 2013. Some of these articles focused on fantasy releases, others were open to books of all genres. What was initially heralded by some as a procedural with a sneaky addition of some supernatural elements turns out to be more at home firmly in the cop drama genre. The bit of weird and possibly magical dissolves into issues of mental health and an obviously unnatural obsession with gun ownership.

Nevertheless, Gun Machine is a thrilling tale and well worth the read. The story is unique and unlike anything I’ve read, all the while fitting the bill as a massively appealing crime thriller.
Ellis’ work continues to be in a category of its own and leaves one eagerly anticipating his next effort.

For fans of Gun Machine, it is worth noting that Ellis’ website reports that the story is currently being developed for television by Chernin Entertainment and Fox.

January 1, 2013
Mulholland Books (Little, Brown & Co.)
308 p.

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