Night Train
by Martin Amis (1997)
Vintage (1999)
176 pp

Night Train is my first venture into the world of Martin Amis. After the recent hullabaloo in which he doesn’t necessarily come off as a great person, I thought I had to get a sense of his writing.

Here we have an interesting twist on the tried and true (but usually overcooked) American detective novel. In the first paragraph, detective Mike Hoolihan introduces herself:

I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement — or an unusual construction. But it’s a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman also.

Mike has been a police for a long time now, but she’s about to tell the story of her worse assignment, one she was personally involved in, and one that has more significance to us than the typical detective story. Jennifer Rockwell, who seemingly has it all and has it all together has committed suicide. Jennifer is the daughter of Colonel Tom, Mike’s boss and a true friend who has helped Mike through many rough patches in her life. Colonel Tom cannot believe that his daughter would commit suicide, so he sends Mike in to investigate.

Because any outcome, yes, any at all, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, cannibalism, marathon tortures of Chinese ingenuity, of Afghan lavishness, any outcome was better than the other thing. Which was his daughter putting the .22 in her mouth and pulling the trigger three times.

Three times? That should be an early clue that indeed Jennifer could not have committed suicide. But these jaded police don’t jump blindly to conclusions. They have their response:

You shoot yourself once in the mouth. That’s life.  You shoot yourself twice. Hey. Accidents happen. You shoot yourself three times. You got to really want to go.

But even though some suicides have succeeded by shooting themselves in the head three times, Jennifer’s still makes no sense. While often unlikely suicides happen because the person just succumbed to “the water torture of staying alive,” Jennifer’s never shown any signs that she’s even slightly tired or depressed. Quite the opposite. She has everything anyone could want: a perfect boyfriend, a perfect family, a perfect job she loved, a perfect figure, no financial problems, no troubled past. But there are clues that suggest something went wrong — or right.

But like many detective novels, once the answer to the mystery is disclosed, it loses some of its flavor. Incredibly clever. And the book was certainly tight enough to lead up to it perfectly. But I must say that as clever as it was, as good a read as it was, I’m happy to move on to other thoughts, to other reads.

I’m also glad to move away from Amis’s style; sometimes his adoption of the jaded detective voice was, as it often is, annoying to the point of becoming its own analogue of water torture. All those short, repetitive jabs. In fact, through the first fifty pages or so I really wondered whether I’d be able to handle the rest of the slim novel. I’m glad I stuck with it. It turns out to be a tightly wound post-modern novel with a satisfying ending.

On a side note, because Amis’s 2006 statements that have sullied his reputation somewhat, I was paying particular attention to any author signals in this book, written over ten years ago. Early in the book, Mike gives one of those preemptive apologies that is not an apology:

Allow me to apologize for the bad language, the diseased sarcasm, and the bigotry.


Even though by the end I was smiling at Amis’s clever resolution, I’m not sure Night Train was the best jumping off point for getting to know Martin Amis. I think I’d like to see something he’s written with more substance. But it was definitely impressive enough I want to get to know his work better, so what do you recommend?

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