Night Train, by Martin Amis
1997, 175 pp.
Night Train a police procedural by Martin Amis is a novel you struggle to put down; filled as it is with a prose style reflective of an educated police officer who’s seen much of everything. The story begins with Mike Hoolihan, the detective and narrator, and as she herself points out a woman, telling us that what will follow is the worst case she’s ever had to deal with. What unfolds is a complex foray into a case that comes to consume all of her waking hours, the subject of her investigation is the apparent suicide of Colonel Tom’s (a man she loves and respects for drying her out – she was a devout alcoholic, and not incidentally a man who is in charge of 3,000 police) daughter. At first, Amis skillfully weaves us through her day and her current job, as an asset seizing police, meaning the mob owns some shit, we want that shit, so we as police, take that shit. Then in the second section Mike delves deeply into the psychological profile of the said victim, Jennifer, who as we begin this section realize was on lithium – the drug of the manic depressive. In the final section “The Seeing” we solve the suicide, figure it out as the saying goes, and we are not satisfied, and neither is Mike, but its how it is. And we find out that Jennifer has left the clues, has done so deliberately because she is the daughter of a police.
Interesting to note is the recurring theme of the night train throughout the novel taking a new and clever interpretation at each twist and turn. We get the actual physical night train which keeps the rent way down and keeps her up “around quarter to four. I lay there for a time with my eyes open. No chance of reentry.” We soon find out that her man Tobe is also a night train warbling up the steps in all his massive girth, a man so large he is once ascribed furniture proportion with the “I sat on the couch of his lap.” Then the philosophical musings of a detective “Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness…The ticket costs everything you have. But it’s just a one-way. This train takes you into the night, and leaves you there.” But it’s the description that really takes this novel and the night train to the smoothness of Johnny Black, how the actual night train interweaves with the suicide, “And here comes the night train. First, the sound of knives being sharpened. Then its cry, harsh but symphonic, like a chord of car horns.”
The prose of Mike Hoolihan is that of an educated police, who knows a thing or two about history, about as much as one can glean from college and the occasional stray fact that permeates our everyday interactions with media and film. At the beginning we even get this caveat, “Allow me to apologize in advance for the bad language, the diseased sarcasm, and bigotry. All police are racist. It’s part of our job…Anyone can become a police – Jews, blacks, Asians, women – and once you’re there you’re a member of a race called police, which is obliged to hate every other race.” Followed immediately by another, “These papers and transcripts were put together piecemeal over a period of four weeks. I apologize also for any inconsistencies in the tenses (hard to avoid, when writing about the recently dead) and for the informalities in the dialogue presentation.”
Amis missteps only once in the entire novel into complete and utter failure with this travesty of colloquial speech imitation, “I was quit when you came in here. I’m twice as quit now.” This a response to Col. Tom Rockwell’s insistence that she pick up the case even though she was currently working out of asset forfeiture, after eight years of grueling homicide. The dialogue is superb, with each character getting her or his own inflections and vernacular particular to what that person would have in real life. For example in an interview with Jennifer’s boss, who is “big in his discipline” and “famous: TV-famous” we get this majestic air of authority and condescension in one priceless exchange,
…As of last fall she was working on the Milky Way’s Virgo-infall velocity.
I asked him: could you be more specific?
I am being specific. Perhaps I should be more general.
The same scientist who by the walk out to Mike's car we see again in this light,
“Denziger looked as though mathematics were happening to him right then and
there. As though math were happening to him: He looked subtracted, with much of
his force of life, and his IQ, suddenly taken away.”
The structure of the novel is characteristic of Amis’ attention to detail. He begins the first section “Blowback” utilizing the days themselves as the subheadings, to orient us to the crime and the time span we are, in fact, as readers working with. Then in the second section “Felo De Se” which is an archaic legal term meaning “felon of himself” (as relates to English common law) or shorthand, suicide, we see a shift to longer headings which briefly summarize the actions undertaken in this section which is to put together the psychological profile or the why of whodunit. While finally, in the third section “The Seeing” we end up seeing the why without interruption of headings and in eighteen pages, and as in all good police procedurals we get the closure we’ve been so desperately seeking at each twist and turn of the whole sordid affair.
The novel was skillfully written. The pages kept turning themselves as if they too were examining the case. The ending was handed to us on a silver platter, right next to the dialogue, and the suicide of a beautiful woman with everything to live for. Put into the context of his work Night Train was a much easier read than was Money (for all its slow moving minutia and painful alcoholism of the main character), Amis in this case gave us a reformed drunk who is seen at the end sipping on her second seltzer before walking out the bar. In his book the War Against Cliché Amis yelps with the indignation of a prose stylist whose only content concern is to avoid unwarranted cliché, in this book he meets the criteria and delves deeply in and through the mind of a police, a woman police no less, and with the skill of authorial confidence takes us through one case that we will likely never forget.