Ever noticed that some people just draw the weirdness out of others? They themselves may be perfectly normal, but something about them—call it a random weird field, bad luck, mutant power, whatever—just causes the stranger elements of society to gravitate to them. Mike McGill, the exasperated protagonist of Warren Ellis' first prose novel, Crooked Little Vein, is one of those people. A talented former Pinkerton operative whose solo career has been marked by cases that test incredulity and the gag reflex (as an example, his first case led him to discover a cult devoted to Tantric sex with ostriches), McGill has just about bottomed out on his career when the White House chief of staff shows up and hires him to chase a McGuffin ... I mean, find a book.
But it's not just any book. In McGill's depraved and bent universe, the Founding Fathers decided the Constitution might not be enough to keep America on the straight and narrow, so they wrote a second, backup version, in case the nation ever went down the tubes. Not only did they create a backup, but they bound it in a book with mystical properties so that simple exposure to the book would, in a sense, reboot people's priorities and align their moral values correctly. In other words, a right-wing wet dream, and the cadaverous junkie who runs the nation (the chief of staff, I mean) hires McGill to find it so he can reboot America. Unfortunately for McGill, who is pretty conservative in his worldview, the book has traded hands many times, usually for sexual favors of a disturbing and twisted nature, and the path to the book leads him into many, many situations that even the Marquis de Sade himself might have run from screaming.
Ellis is a legend in the comics and graphic-novel field—having created major series like Transmetropolitan, The Authority and Global Frequency, as well as having worked on many others—so it's no surprise that his first prose novel has enough linguistic and narrative fireworks to light up a continent. His writing is assured and strong, and McGill is a fun character to follow, witty and fatalistic about being a "shit magnet," as another character calls him. What is surprising is how lame the rest of the novel is narratively. The basic plot is fine, but it's pretty clear that Ellis simply decided to see how many bizarre kinks and stereotypes he could fit into a book without actually having people yark on the pages. Or maybe he was going for yark; Ellis is not subtle, and he likes having a certain effect. Then again, maybe the very British Ellis is just feeling snarky about America right now, and decided the portrayal as a nation of perverts was spot on. I suspect that wasn't his true intention since there is much bandying about of the ideals of freedom and personal choice, but he never addresses the ideas of responsibility and duty, so the message is lost in an avalanche of ewww.
Crooked Little Vein is a fast-paced and funny read, and it kept me amused the whole way through, but as a novel, it's not really any more than a series of set pieces held together by two characters and an overriding sense of "What the hell happens next?" It's definitely not for everyone, and if you have a low threshold for kink and violence, this definitely isn't for you. If, however, you're not terribly interested in a solid throughline in your novels, and you're already a fan of Ellis (or Garth Ennis, of whom I was strongly reminded while reading this), then run down to your bookstore and pick up a copy of Crooked Little Vein. Whatever else you get from it, it'll be an unforgettable read.