Not a bad way to start my reading year in 2010.
I found this a flawed, but in the end quite excellent, book. I wish Amis had just gone ahead and set it in the U.K., as I can see no reason for it being set in America other than the use of a handgun. It unfortunately read like something written by a British author, not quite American enough to truly take place here. For example, the opening paragraph in which the main character insists that cops would refer to themselves as "a police" is just wrong, and every time Amis used that construction, I wanted to scream at him. No American cop would ever refer to him or herself as "a police" or "the murder police." They're "cops" and "Homicide." I say this as a reporter who's spent a fair amount of time talking to cops -- daily for about two years at one point in my career. It's one of those things that was annoying enough to pull me out of the book whenever I came across it.
The book took a little time to get going. I think once Amis got past the police procedural elements and really started exploring the characters is when it took off. The book really is a character study of two women -- the narrator, Detective Mike Hoolihan, and the suicide victim, Jennifer Rockwell. It's a study in contrasts in some ways. Jennifer gets all the breaks while Mike takes all the beatings, and yet it's Mike who's ultimately better equipped to survive in a pretty senseless world.
I also think it's a meditation on the senselessness of death, whether it's an unexplainable suicide or a baby being murdered over a diaper. None of it makes sense. Mike knows this, even though it's her job to try to impose order on the chaos of it all. But we humans, we look for patterns and meaning, often seeing those where they don't exist. As a reader, I kept expecting a neatly wrapped explanation for Jennifer's suicide. She was an astrophysicist - maybe she learned there was an asteroid hurtling toward the Earth that would wipe us all out anyway? I can't recall what other theories I entertained, but I thought there'd be one. In this sense, Amis turns noir fiction on its head. There is no solution to the puzzle, there is no sense, because that's how life is. That's how death is. It doesn't make sense, no matter how hard we try. (My corollary: And so isn't life really about the connections we make while we're here?)
One more note -- I really loved the recurring imagery of the night train. It really added to the noir feel, as well as serving as a metaphor for death. The night train comes for us all sooner or later. (It's also really making me want to listen to Johnny Cash, for some reason. Alas, I have none in my CD collection. I feel a trip to Best Buy in my immediate future.)