Night Trainby Martin Amis
When Jennifer Rockwell, darling of the community and daughter of a respected career cop--now top brass--takes her own life, no one is prepared to believe it. Especially her father,
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Detective Mike Hoolihan has seen it all. A fifteen-year veteran of the force, she's gone from walking a beat, to robbery, to homicide. But one case--this case--has gotten under her skin.
When Jennifer Rockwell, darling of the community and daughter of a respected career cop--now top brass--takes her own life, no one is prepared to believe it. Especially her father, Colonel Tom. Homicide Detective Mike Hoolihan, longtime colleague and friend of Colonel Tom, is ready to "put the case down." Suicide. Closed. Until Colonel Tom asks her to do the one thing any grieving father would ask: take a second look.
-- The New York Times
And Night Train is entertaining. It's a detective story about the suicide or murder of a young woman who had everything those around her wanted: beauty, wit, vivacity, health and a stimulating career. The characters, particularly Detective "Mike" Hoolihan -- the quotes are because Mike is female -- are crisp and entertaining. And the solution to the death is original while remaining faithful to murder classic conventions. This last point is no small one: As Borges once observed, the American detective story is generally a disappointment precisely because its solutions don't satisfy the curiosity that the plot has stirred.
Night Train is a disappointment for opposite reasons. Amis has never been much interested in character, motivation and plot, which aren't considered major virtues in an era when technique holds court, but at the kid's table of crime fiction, they're essential. You feel as if Amis does care about his characters, perhaps more than he's cared about most of those in his previous novels, but doesn't know how to give voice to that concern. Night Train feels rootless. "Mike" is convincing as neither a woman nor an American, and the unnamed city Amis places her in gives off no heat. (One suspects it's a pastiche of American big cities that Amis has glimpsed during book tours.) It's true that Elmore Leonard, one of Amis' idols, also doesn't waste a lot of time in description of local fauna, but with Leonard's deft paintbrush strokes, he doesn't need a lot of time to make you feel as if you're in a particular place. The city in Night Train is like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: There's no there.
To cover these deficiencies Amis falls back on the mechanics of the murder mystery plot -- a peculiar homage to Leonard, whose books (like most of Dashiell Hammett's) aren't mysteries. Amis may not like it, but the author Night Train draws most comparison with is Raymond Chandler, for whom Amis has a well-known contempt. The book's best lines -- "Guys? She combed them out of her hair" and "You wouldn't pray for a body like that -- but something was wrong with it. It was dead." -- sound much more like Chandler than like Leonard, as does Mike Hoolihan's Philip Marlowe-like narration. "Suicide is the night train," she tells us, "speeding your way to darkness ... this train takes you into the night, and leaves you there." To which Marlowe might have replied, "What did it matter where you lay once you are dead? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you weren't bothered by things like that." -- Salon
"Night Train pushes the boundaries of noir almost to the edge of darkness." —Time
"Brilliantly written, with an emotional force that will tear your heart out ... " —The Calgary Sun
"... compelling ... Night Train is an entertaining take on the American detective novel, a potent cocktail of violence and stylized dialogue flavoured by an unexpected existential twist." —Matt Cohen, The Globe and Mail
"A work of dark romanticism, a tale of possession ... prose crackling with wit and invention." —The New York Times Book Review
"A small gem of a novel." —The Montreal Gazette
"Amis is arguably the greatest wordsmith living today, tossing of hundred-dollar words like spent matchsticks, with a scalding wit to go with it. Night Train is a tightly crafted and skilled work..." —Winnipeg Free Press
Read an Excerpt
The Psychological Autopsy
Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness. You won't get there so quick, not by natural means. You buy your ticket and you climb on board. That ticket costs everything you have. But it's just a one-way. This train takes you into the night, and leaves you there. It's the night train.
Now I feel that someone is inside of me, like an intruder, her flashlight playing. Jennifer Rockwell is inside of me, trying to reveal what I dont want to see.
Suicide is a mind-body problem that ends violently and without any winner.
I've got to slow this shit down. I've got to slow it all down.
What I'm doing here, with my ballpoint, my tape recorder, and my PC--its the same as what Paulie No was doing in the ME's office, with his clamp, his electric saw, his trayfull of knives. Only we call it the psychological autopsy.
I can do this. I am trained to do this.
For a time, though only a short time, and only once to my face, they used to call me "Suicide Mike." This was thought to be too offensive, even for downtown, and they soon abandoned it. Offensive not to the poor bastards found slumped in carseats in sealed garages, or half submerged in crimson bathtubs. Offensive to me: It meant I was fool enough to take any bum call. Because a suicide didn't do a damn thing for your solve rate or your overtime. On the midnights the phone would ring and Mac or O'Boye would be pouting over the cupped receiver and saying, How about you handle this one, Mike? Its an s.d. and I need dough for my mother's operation. A suspicious death--not the murder he craves. For little-boy-lost here also believes that suicides are an insult to his forensic gifts. He wants a regular perpetrator. Not some schmuck who, a century ago, would have been buried at the four-corners, under a heap of rocks, with a stake through his heart. Then for a time--a short time, as I say--they'd hold out the phone and deadpan, It's for you, Mike. Its a suicide. And then I'd yell at them. But they weren' t wrong, maybe. Maybe it moved and compelled me more than it did them, to crouch under the bridge on the riverbank, to stand in a rowhouse stairwell while a shadow rotated slowly on the wall, and think about those who hate their own lives and choose to defy the terrible providence of God.
As part of my job I completed, as many others did, the course called "Suicide: Harsh Conclusions," at Pete, and followed that up, again on city time, with the refresher lecture series on "Patterns of Suicide," at CC. I came to know the graphs and diagrams of suicide, their pie segments, their concentric circles, their color codes, their arrows, their snakes and ladders. With my Suicide Prevention tours, back in the Forty-Four, plus the hundred-some suicides I worked in the Show, I came to know not just the physical aftermaths but the basic suicide picture, ante mortem.
And Jennifer doesn't belong here. She doesn't belong.
I have my folders out on the couch, this Sunday morning. Going through my notes to see what I got:
-In all cultures, risk of suicide increases with age. But not steadily. The diagonal graph-line seems to have a flattish middle section, like a flight of stairs with a landing. Statistically (for what stats are worth around here), if you make it into your twenties, you're on level ground until the risk bump of the midlife.
Jennifer was twenty-eight.
- About 50 percent of suicides have tried before. They are parasuicides or pseudosuicides. About 75 percent give warning. About 90 percent have histories of egression--histories of escape.
Jennifer hadn't tried before. So far as I know, she did not give warning. All her life she saw things through.
- Suicide is very, very means-dependent. Take the means away (toxic domestic gas, for instance) and the rate plummets.
Jennifer didn't need gas. Like many another American, she owned a gun.
These are my notes. What about their notes, and what percentage leave them? Some studies say 70 percent, others say 30. Suicide notes, it is assumed, are often spirited away by the decedents loved ones. Suicides, as we have seen, are often camouflaged--smudged, snowed.
Axiom: Suicides generate false data.
Jennifer, apparently, did not leave a suicide note. But I know she wrote one. I just feel this.
It may run in families but it's not inherited. It is a pattern, or a configuration. It's not a predisposition. If your mother kills herself, it wont help, and it opens a door . . .
Here are some other do's and dont's. Or dont's, anyway:
Don't work around death. Don't work around pharmaceuticals.
Don't be an immigrant. Don't be a German, just off the boat.
Don't be Romanian. Don't be Japanese.
Don't live where the sun doesn't shine.
Don't be an adolescent homosexual: One in three will attempt.
Don't be a nonagenarian Los Angelean.
Don't be an alcoholic. It's suicide on the installment plan, anyway.
Don't be a schizophrenic. Disobey those voices in your head.
Don't be depressed. Lighten up.
Don't be Jennifer Rockwell.
And don't be a man. Don't be a man, whatever you do. Tony Silvera was, of course, talking through his ass when he said that suicide was a "babe thing." To the contrary, suicide is a dude thing. Attempting is a woman thing: Theyre more than twice as likely to do that. Completing is a man thing: They're more than twice as likely to do that. There's only one day in the year when its safer to be male. Mother's Day.
Mother's Day is the day for felo de se. How come? I wonder. Is it the all-you-can-eat brunch at the Quality Inn? No. The suicides are the women who skipped the lunch. They're the women who skipped the kids.
Dont be Jennifer Rockwell.
The question is: But why not?
From the Hardcover edition.
What People are saying about this
Wall Street Journal
"A virtuoso performance.... Amis has created a quicksilver narrative that grabs the reader and refuse to let go."
New York Times
Meet the Author
Martin Amis is the author of thirteen novels, the memoir Experience, two collections of stories and six collections of non-fiction, most recently The Second Plane. He lives in New York.
- Oxford, England
- Date of Birth:
- August 25, 1949
- Place of Birth:
- Oxford, England
- B.A., Exeter College, Oxford
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Our book club¿s novel for February was Night Train, by Martin Amis, which we¿d selected from a series of proposed books that our members described as ¿quirky¿ or ¿out of the ordinary.¿ We picked Night Train not only because of the author¿s reputation but also because of its brevity (175 pages). Our discussion started with a fairly lengthy of what exactly genre fiction is. Night Train has all the elements of a traditional hard-boiled mystery: a hard-edged, bitter, cynical female cop who has been done dirt by the world, and who is barely holding on to her few remaining relationships. It also has what one would consider a traditional plot¿the narrator¿s (¿Mike¿ Hoolihan) mentor¿s daughter has committed suicide, but no one can accept this¿and Mike is dispatched to find out what really happened. And, finally, the book is told in what could be considered the common sort of criminal/underworld/police patois that we have seen in noir fiction for decades (and which led some of us to wonder if people ever really talk(ed) like this, or if this is a hyperstylized made-up language that is ¿real¿ only in the world of fiction). So why, then, does the book feel so surreal, and so non-standard? The book takes place in an unnamed American city with a reputation for being tough, but the language seems more British than American, beginning with the opening line ¿I am a police.¿ Such an opening line almost sets up the expectation that you¿re going to be in a world you don¿t recognize or know much about¿and that does indeed turn out to be the case. While the investigation does proceed on a more-or-less understandable, the book¿s final ¿reveal¿ is disturbing and completely unexpected (I can¿t say more without spoilers, but anyone who has read this book will know what I mean). And it was in the ending that we had our most intense discussion, with the members pretty evenly divided. Some felt that reading the book had been an off-kilter experience for them throughout, as if they were caught in a strange alternate reality somewhere between fiction and real life. Others felt that the book and the ending were all the more satisfying because they are more ¿realistic¿ in terms of what life is really like¿inconsistent characters, a series of events more than a ¿plotline¿ created and maintained by an author/narrator, and a conclusion that doesn¿t fit anyone¿s expectations of how a crime novel should end. All in all, while we were divided on how much we ¿liked¿ the book, we all agreed that it was a singularly worthy read¿a book, unlike so many mysteries, that can sustain long bouts of discussion. What I personally found so interesting about the discussion was that I was able to see all points of view. I understood why some people felt so passionately about the book¿s ground-breaking aspects, and I also understood why some people felt so frustrated (even robbed) by it. This is certainly an important book, and I think it¿s worth a read if you can handle intense discussions of suicide, alcoholism, and many other unpleasant things about life.
Subject matter is a little disturbing but it is well written and very thought provoking.