“Crooked Little Vein” is the type of novel that peels open your cerebral cortex and dumps a little anarchy in before sewing it shut, transforming your thoughts and realigning your sense of reality in a matter of pages.
Novels aren’t supposed to do that. Novels are supposed to entertain us; maybe play around with some serious ideas, if it’s a mainstream book. But above all else, novels are supposed to be safe comfort food, digestible. “Crooked Little Vein” is dangerous. It dares to be different. It dares to be literature.
You like your detective tales twisted, morally ambiguous and just plain fun? Author Warren Ellis has written one of the most bizarre yet accomplished debut novels of the decade.
Though it’s his first, Ellis has been around well over a decade, telling very good, sometimes very odd, but intelligent stories. Those unfamiliar with Ellis’ comics and graphic novels are in for quite a shock. What he does in “Crooked Little Vein” is light fare compared to his comics work (the search for Hitler porn; wine enemas).
But seeing those naked words stripped of dialogue balloons and supporting artwork is stunning and beautiful, a sort of madness prose, dripping with dark humor and inventiveness.
///NOTE on following graph: The writer is assuming readers know what “bukkake” is – let alone “Godzilla Bukkake.” I think the latter needs to be lightly defined. Based on a bit of Web research, I’m assuming it’s just a much-bigger version of the group-sex act in which a man/woman gets ejaculated upon (i.e., more people involved). Still, it might be good to include the exact number – or otherwise give a better sense of what this is.///
This novel supports my claim that all the great writers today are working in the comic book industry. Ever hear of bukkake? Ellis introduces us to Godzilla Bukkake, salt water-injected testicles and a heroin-addicted secretary of state. Only a writer whose background is in comics would tackle these subjects in quite the way that Ellis does.
Nor is he a stranger to the LGBT community. He created the comic “The Authority,” which has a gay superhero couple, Apollo and Midnighter, who could ram Superman into the ground with a single pinky. He’s used gay characters in “Global Frequency” (a TV series adaptation was supposed to arrive courtesy of the now-defunct WB; alas, the series never made it past the pilot stage). And a couple of gay characters make an appearance in the novel for more than just comic relief.
“Crooked Little Vein’s” story is straight-forward enough: Michael McGill, a down-on-his-luck private detective, is visited by the secretary of defense, who offers him a $500,000 retainer for locating the real Constitution. Apparently the one we’re using pales in comparison, since the original has invisible amendments, is wrapped in alien skin and has a special power to influence minds. It’s all about making a better America – so says the secretary of defense. And to get to it, McGill has to use his keen deductive talents as he explores the corrosive underbelly of the country.
Reluctantly, he takes the job and is plunged into a world that ultimately changes him by novel’s end. He meets Trix, a beautiful bisexual woman with three girlfriends and two boyfriends, who becomes a guide to the baser stirrings of the human condition.
There’s going to be a lot of talk about William S. Burroughs as an influence (the pure surrealism of the novel), and comparisons to author Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled Philip Marlowe detective character certainly aren’t too far behind. The book has all the tropes of the detective novel with none of the self-parody and piles of crappiness familiar to most readers of the genre. Ellis takes a worn-out convention and gives it new threads.
Where many authors would ask the reader to tolerate 800 pages of (unneeded) subplot and exposition, Ellis gives a lean story that hurtles you through a strangely populated landscape – the journey far more fulfilling than the destination. “Crooked Little Vein” pulses with the oddest light, a dirty pretty thing, more than the sum of its parts, a true summer reading experience.
‘Crooked Little Vein’