After he switched agents, signed a rich book contract, and fixed his teeth a couple of years ago, Englishman Martin Amis (London Fields, The Information) became one of a select few literary novelists whose name appears highlighted in entertainment news and A-list party reports. His newfound celebrity didn’t seem to affect his snarkily self-deprecating takes on modern life — until now. But as marginal as it is, Night Train, a mock-hard-boiled police procedural set in an unnamed “second-echelon American city,” probably won’t jeopardize Amis’ career. At least not much.
Mike Hoolihan narrates, and besides being an ex-alcoholic with self-destructive tendencies, the middle-aged homicide detective is also a woman. Amis’ lame running gag has Hoolihan being mistaken constantly for a guy, what with her mannish build (5 foot 10, 180 pounds), gruff smoker’s voice, and lumbering gait. Likable as she is, though, Mike never seems more than a construct of shopworn urban cynicism and tabloid biography. She was sexually abused as a young girl, roughed up by all the men in her adolescent life, and now lives in that most film noirish of digs, a tenement apartment by the railroad tracks.
Night Train’s plot turns on a device as old as the dime pulp magazines. When astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell — beautiful, young, happy, healthy — inexplicably commits suicide, Mike is asked to snoop around the case. Jennifer’s father, high brass in the police department, has convinced himself that his daughter was murdered, and most likely by her college-professor boyfriend, described here with the rhetorical flourish of Mickey Spillane as a “bigbrain and dreamboat.”
It begins to look as if there may be something to Col. Tom Rockwell’s suspicions when an autopsy reveals that Jennifer was shot in the head three times. Seems like we have a bona fide murder mystery on our hands…but wait, not so fast.
Like other “serious” writers who’ve gone slumming through tough-guy popular culture, Amis doesn’t seem interested in concocting a good puzzle. Rather, you sense a broad, condescending wink-wink in nearly every paragraph. In fact, it’s hard to know exactly what, beyond parody and mood building, Amis is trying to get at in Night Train. As Mike Hoolihan slogs from interview to interview (there’s nothing here that remotely resembles suspense), the curiosity surrounding the woman’s death gives way completely to long cosmological ruminations about humanity’s insignificance in the universe. Amis comes off sounding like a college freshman who’s had his first taste of classroom existentialism.
At less than 200 pages, the story never manages to suck you in or make its implausible scenario compelling. Characters remain hyperbolic types, dialogue is stilted and corny (when Mike informs Tom Rockwell that Jennifer is dead, she tells him, “You lost your daughter on this day”), and the inauthenticity of the criminology and cop talk is so blatant you almost have to believe it was deliberate. Why, though? That’s the most baffling mystery in this book.
But even when his imagination isn’t firing on all cylinders, Amis is still worth picking up, if only to enjoy the jazzy rhythm of his prose. Night Train — fast, slender, and slight — reads like a trifling in-betweener, something to keep Amis’ name media current while he’s finishing his next major book. To be generous, let’s call it an “interesting effort.” C+