Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 06/14/23 5:37 AM

Book review: Night Train by Martin Amis

NIGHT TRAIN by Martin Amis. Vintage UK Books.

At first, the story seems a straight send-up of American police stories. The narrator here is a policewoman who goes by the name of Mike Hoolihan; quite apart from the masculine-sounding moniker, she has the voice and the general build of a man, so gets frequently mistaken for one.

So, we have a British writer writing a story about a murder in an unnamed  `second- tier city` in America, a male author who writes in the female voice of his narrator,  the aforementioned Mike Hollihan, and let`s face it, while the language is pitch-perfect, it`s so awkwardly clear that this is a man speaking, thinking.

There`s snark aplenty if you look carefully. I mean look at the names Amis has bestowed on his characters: Hoolihan, Trader Faulkner,  John Macatitch, Arn Debs (who tells Mike he conducted himself with the `utmost correctitude`), Bax Denziger (a professor of astrophysics who tells Mike he`s `consternated` to hear about his colleague Jennifer`s death), Phyllida Trounce, Oltan O’Boyle. Some of the mannerisms of the people in the book are so broadside, some of the digs so pointed, you can`t help but wonder if Amis is cocking a snook at people across the pond.

Some set pieces are so staged. Like when Mike goes to deliver the news of their daughter`s death to the Rockwells and chances upon them dancing, to celebrate forty years of a happy marriage.  Like the Latin saying on the wall of the mortuary that says,  `Let talking cease, let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living.` Like each and every interrogation Mike conducts with suspects, where the reader has to constantly tell herself this is a woman (cop) talking.

Gleaming sentences

Elsewhere, it`s pure Martin Amis, words and sentences that gleam like nuggets. Like, when a bullet enters a human being, it has hysterics. Like, a woman fell out of a clear blue sky. Like, I have moved on but my fear still lives there, in the crawlspace underneath. Like Hoolihan`s list of suspicious deaths:  Jumpers, stumpers, dumpers, dunkers, bleeders, floaters, poppers, bursters.

It doesn’t take too long for the reader to settle into the story, and that’s where the real meat lies. Mike,  part of the homicide squad,  is investigating the death of her mentor`s only and beloved daughter Jennifer Rowley. On the surface of it, it doesn’t seem a suspicious death: Jennifer shot herself in the mouth. Thrice. Only, there seems to be no conceivable reason for the beautiful brainy woman, a town favourite, in a happy relationship, to do anything of the sort. Jennifer`s father suspects the man she lives with, Trader Faulkner. So of course,  Mike Hoolihan has to go through everything with a fine toothcomb, and shares her diary notings with us, the readers.

Finely intertwined with the shining life of the newly deceased Jennifer is the less- than- shining life of Mike herself; she had been abused by her own father as a child, then entered into a series of miserable relationships with abusive men, and finally hit the bottle hard. All through Mike`s tone is brusque, abrasive,  but the pathos just one level below shows through, and is wrenching for the reader. The night train of the title passes by her low-end digs every night at some melancholy hour, a constant reminder to  Mike of her squalid life.

And as Mike Hoolihan dives deeper into the case, the picture begins to blur, then crystalise, blur again and slowly crystalise for good. Amis leaves the reader to connect all the dots at the end but it really doesn`t  take rocket science to do so.


a death investigatedAmerican copsMartin AmisNight TrainVintage UK Books

Sheila Kumar • June 14, 2023

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