Detectives Jim Rosato and John Tallow arrive at a building on Pearl Street in New York. Rosato’s overweight, his wife has been making him jog. Tallow’s a reader, a man stuck in his own head because its fractionally easier than living in a city of casual brutality and great sandwich shops. There are reports of shots fired and when they enter the building, they find an aging, naked bodybuilder with a shotgun. Rosato goes first, Rosato’s knee gives way.
The bodybuilder kills him.
Tallow kills the bodybuilder.
Wrapped in the numb, silver foil emergency blanket of shock, John Tallow has to have it pointed out to him that the single shot the bodybuilder fired punched a hole in the wall of a nearby apartment. An apartment that’s completely free of human habitation, and which has surfaces covered, in every conceivable way, with guns. All kinds, all calibres, all type, arranged in arcs and patterns and wrapping around each other to create a cathedral that stinks of gun oil and cordite. A cathedral where every single gun has been used in an unsolved killing.
John Tallow’s Captain rewards him for the tragedy in his life by giving him the case to investigate. Tallow responds by doing just that.
The 1948 film noir The Naked City, and its later TV spin off were both built around one of those lines of dialogue so perfect it almost feels machined. ‘There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.’ Gun Machine isn’t just one of those stories, it’s a story about what happens when those stories collide, and the very different versions of New York that each of these characters experience, come crashing together. The effect, on all of them, is revelatory.
John Tallow lives in his head and it takes the almost casual slaughter of his partner to shake him free of that. Tallow’s a reader, so much so the entire backseat of the car he shared with his partner is crammed full of books, magazines and at least one tablet. His house, likewise, is full of printed matter and CDs, and what becomes clear very early on is that Tallow is an information junkie. He’s a man who doesn’t just love to know things, he loves to examine those things from every conceivable angle, play with them, pull them apart and put them back together in the quiet, serene halls of his mind. Anything is better than the hurtling, burning merry go round of suffering an NYPD detective faces, and which Ellis cleverly threads through the story. Any time Tallow is driving anywhere, he leaves the police radio on, even going as far as saying he finds it soothing, and that constant litany, the apocalypse of a city trying to tear itself apart, is the noise that almost drowns out the signal. However, where other characters would lose themselves in it, Tallow uses it in the same way people use ambient music; it’s the heartbeat of a city breaking itself apart just because it can; heavy machinery in the street, music blasting from a car as it drives by. New York, read in tooth and claw.
That’s the first intersection of stories; the story John Tallow has been telling himself running headlong into the story that he’s living. Tallow, consumed with grief and horror as he is, finds his latent policing senses opening back up as he dives deeper into the impossible case he’s discovered. Ellis plays, cleverly, with Tallow’s smoking habits, using them as a signifier not only of where he is mentally, but emotionally. It’s a smart idea, as is the moment where Tallow literally suits up following the initial shooting. John Tallow’s a police officer and if no one else will comport themselves like one, clearly he’ll have to. The moment he makes that choice, a new story is born, elements of Tallow’s previous two combining to make a New York rich with detail and sensation, crammed with horror and beauty, completely, brutally alive.
This new story also drags other people in as it goes. The novel talks, at great length and with the sort of affection that always has one eye on the door, about the NYPD CSUs. Tallow even ‘domesticates’ a couple of the pseudo-feral crime scientists, Scar and Bat. It would be easy to say they’re vintage Ellis, but that would do both them and him a disservice. Instead of the, at times slightly broad, comic relief that some of Ellis’ previous supporting casts have offered, they’re a nuanced, well realized pair of characters in their own right. Bat in particular has a fine line in observation, and his commentary on Scar’s love life, and his own reasons for being a police officer are two highlights of the book. Scar, for her part, can see further than either Tallow or Bat, and is, quietly the most grounded of all three of them. A happily married female CSU and her occasionally functional lab partner, bickering their way through the horrors of their city like a lab-coated Vladimir and Estragon. Stars of their own stories, inhabitants of their own New Yorks; emerging cautiously into the very different very dangerous version of the city that John Tallow has brought them to.
There are others, drawn into this city that John Tallow makes out of dead people, taken in turn from the room made out of guns. Several of the city’s luminaries, a shopowner, a crook, a pair of private enterprise forensic techs and two senior police officers all figure as the book continues, and the true, or truer, New York Tallow stumbled upon begins to spread. Many of them have a scene, or less, worth of lines but all of them feel real, rounded, crumpled. There’s a sense with all of them that we’re seeing the ten percent of their lives that has extruded above the surface, intersected with Tallow’s. Eight million stories in the naked city, and Ellis shows us flashes of them all. Just as the police radio is a litany of horror, Ellis, quietly one of the most compassionate comic writers of his generation, uses these characters as a counterpoint of decency. Grumpy, frequently very profane decency but decency nonetheless, and this leads to some of the novel’s best observed, most effecting moments. A police Captain does something simple, and brave and futile off the page and is rewarded with instant retirement and no pension, a florist gives Tallow his first break in the case before she’s fully opened for the morning and Scar’s wife does the last thing Tallow expected; treat him with respect and kindness. The sequence featuring Tallie, who prior to this has been built up as a monstrous, pseudo-Dominatrix Gorgon, is one of the book’s shining moments. Tallie is an imposing physical presence, and the relationship she has with Scar has definite Dom/Sub tones to it but that’s never used for cheap sensationalism. Instead, Tallie is a serious, calming influence on the final third of the book, a woman who loves her wife, tolerates her wife’s work partner in the same way one tolerates a lovable but stinking dog and views Tallow with something approaching familial concern. The moment where Ellis describes Tallow suddenly wanting to burst into tears as he realizes, for the first time in years, his guard is down, is one I’ve experienced and Ellis absolutely captures that combination of frantic release and desperate embarrassment as you realize what may be about to happen. Here, it’s not Tallow’s story intersecting with everyone else’s, it’s Tallie’s, and her tremendous strength of will and authority makes it a desperately welcome moment of calm in an increasingly frantic book.
That constant struggle, whose story is everyone else guest starring in, is woven into the fabric of the Hunter. The Hunter is the man who owns the apartment, and who arranged the guns. He’s also a man caught between two stories; the unsullied isle of Manhatta he wants so desperately to live on and modern-day Manhattan. The way the two mix, like blood in water, gives Ellis an opportunity tor really cut loose and the Hunter’s chapters are feverish, clammy with invention, violence and calm, slow blinking brutality. He has his story, the one that he’s writing on the walls of his apartment and in the blood of hundreds of unsolved murders and for much of the novel, the police are in that story, whilst the Hunter is a barely seen shadow in their own. He’s a haunting, terrifying figure that Ellis sketches by showing us where he isn’t, a man with clear morals and a clear understanding of why he’s doing what he’s doing sullied only by his complete inability to see reality. He’s a Monster, and some of the killings he carries out are horrifying but Ellis never lets him slide into that other story about serial killers, the one where they’re theatrical, preening masterminds. The Hunter is always painfully aware of his own mortality, aware of what he’s doing but completely unaware that he shouldn’t be doing it. After all, he has a plan. He has a story to tell.
There are a million stories in the naked city. John Tallow is catapulted back into one by the murder of his friend and, instead of being swept along by the roiling tide of tragedy and horror, decides to do something he’s never done before; write something better. Seeing him work, seeing the effect it has on the people around him, doesn’t just make Gun Machine a good book, it makes it an extraordinary one. The knot of stories at the heart of the book take you through multiple Manhattans, all of them fascinating, many of them horrifying and none of them forgettable. There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of the very best.