In Gun Machine, Warren Ellis melts a terrific high-concept idea onto the well-trodden serial-killer genre and sprinkles over it some of his quirky magic to produce a detective tale that spins away in unexpected directions.
The idea is one to die for. When Detective John Tallow’s partner is shot dead by a naked maniac with a shotgun, the subsequent clean-up operation reveals an even more sinister secret in a downtown Manhattan tenement building – an apartment filled with guns.
The weapons are hung on every wall, and cover the floor in strange swirling patterns, dozens of guns, which ballistic tests reveal to have been used a single time each – in unsolved homocides across New York reaching back decades. Tallow discovers that seemingly-unrelated murders across the city have all been committed by a single killer. Each gun, some of which date back a century or more, is invested with a special significance that makes it ideal for that particular murder.
Ellis takes this concept and some standard tropes of the genre – the loner cop, greedy City types, new-technology, and a conspiracy that stretches all the way to the top – and twists them into something which is familiar but also refreshingly different.
Gun Machine has an arch and slightly manic quality to it, as you’d expect from a writer who has spent much of his career writing comics such as Transmetropolitan, The Authority and RED. The dour Tallow, a loner who is hung out to dry by his mendacious bosses, is teamed-up with a pair of unruly Crime Scene investigators, Scarly and Bat, and their childish banter rattles off the page.
The tale unfurls at breakneck speed, and manages to be both funny and very bleak – Tallow travels around the city listening to reports of a succession of brutal crimes on is police radio.
It’s no wonder that Gun Machine is reportedly to be turned into a television series, but I’d imagine the dashes of Native American mysticism, arcane philosophy and history will probably be taken out.
What I liked: Ellis’s schizoid killer is seemingly invincible, but he’s not without his problems. The Hunter is so deranged that he believes he lives in Mannahatta, the lusciously forested island concreted-over to become modern-day Manhattan.
The Hunter detests modern-life so much that it literally makes him sick, and escapes into curious visions in which buildings, cars and street furniture are wiped away before his very eyes to reveal the breathtaking beauty of the forests and wildlife that lived on the island hundreds of years ago.
It’s a reminder that every good antagonist has an inner life, likes and dislikes, views and problems, same as the protagonist. He or she may not have the same world-view as you or me, but they’ve sure as hell got some interesting stuff going on inside their heads. Your job as writer is to bring that out on the page.