Detective John Tallow's day is not getting off to a good start. There's a naked guy with a shotgun who's just blown his partner's head off. And then, to add to his worries, there's an apartment full of guns, each one linked to a murder dating back decades.
Tallow's discovery is just the beginning of a chain of events that will have terrible repercussions for the detective, putting him in the path of a deadly and deluded killer.
Ellis is best known for his entertaining and occasionally controversial comics work, particularly on the book Transmetropolitan, featuring angry journalist of the future, Spider Jerusalem. His comics work is anarchic, twisted and angry with just the right degree of complexity.
As a thriller writer, Ellis seems a little more conventional with Gun Machine. For all his killer's delusions and twisted schemes, at its heart, Gun Machine is a cat and mouse thriller that builds through a set of terrific set pieces to a blistering conclusion. Ellis's prose style is clear and direct, wisely letting the story unfold through action and reaction. Working in a visual medium has given Ellis an excellent handle on what "show don't tell" means, meaning the storytelling is propulsive. You don't want to stop reading in case you miss something; there's a real sense that the plot would keep moving even if you weren't there to keep reading.
There's a lot of Ellis that reminds me of Mulholland stablemate, Duane Swierczynski; the over the top action, the deceptively simple prose, the constant building of stakes and the ability to make even the insane seem quite rational in the moment. Gun Machine is a rush from start to finish, an action movie on the page. Its use of technology lends a slight "futurism" sensation, although most of Ellis's use of technology verges towards the glossily realistic that we might expect from high concept TV series like 24. Basically, the universe of Gun Machine is our own, amped up on some kind of performance enhancing drug. Its slightly surreal and completely breathless.
The same could be said of Ellis's cast. While Tallow is a recognisably reluctant-hero archetype, his sidekicks (in this case a pair of rogue crime scene investigators) get all the best lines and all the best character quirks. The back and forth between the central cast is often great fun. And The Hunter is just plain creepy.
The cat and mouse stuff between Tallow and the Hunter is what keeps the book moving. There are moments in the last third when the plot wraps itself into a few knots surrounding the Gun Machine, and introduces a grand conspiracy that feels a little too neat, along with a side-explanation about native American mythology that admittedly does lead to a great final punchline. However, the sheer enthusiasm of the book means that even if you do feel like you've lost the plot a little, you still have a handle on the stakes and a desire to see how Tallow and the Hunter will finally come into conflict.
As a thrill-ride, Gun Machine works perfectly. Its a high-octane read, with a slam-bang opening and superb set-pieces. Its got just enough insanity to lift itself above the average action thriller, and by the conclusion you'll be feeling more than a little breathless. And its got me wanting to go back and read Ellis's first novel, Crooked Little Vein. So if you're looking for a thriller with a real sense of style and an edge of the fantastic, you'll want to check out Gun Machine. You won't be disappointed.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 19/02/13