by Warren Ellis
277 pages, Harper Perennial
Review by Paul Fenton
I am oftentimes a sucker for cheap marketing gimmicks. As a child I would always buy the novelty McDonalds burger-of-the-month (and I still have fond memories of the Mexican burger, essentially a quarter pounder with some sour cream and salsa), and when I was um-ing and ah-ing about the laptop I’m currently using, my decision was tipped by the promise of a free laptop sleeve, a neoprene envelope which I’m now considering transforming into a beer bottle holder (or “stubby-holder”, for the ocker-literate).
Perhaps this explains why I first picked up the paperback copy of “Crooked Little Vein” by Warren Ellis, a single volume sitting spine-out, written by an author whom I’d never heard of. You see, it was smaller. My eyes were drawn to it because of the one-inch divot it left in the otherwise clean horizon of books on the shelf. Whether the format was a result of marketing tricks or simply cheaper production costs, it was enough for me to pick it up. When I read the first line, I was sold:
I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.
How could I not love that? It’s the first time I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of the first line.
The protagonist is Michael McGill, a private detective from the old gumshoe design whose business is just about dead. He often goes outside and calls his office phone from a payphone to make sure his answering machine still works. McGill is visited by a new client in the opening chapter: the secretary of state to the president of the United States, a functioning heroin addict who wants McGill to track down the other Constitution of the United States, the one written by the founding fathers to be used in a time of grave crisis. With literally no choice in the matter (‘Talk about this, the Office of Homeland Security turns you into pink mist.’), McGill embarks on his awesome quest into the underbelly of America, as conceived by Warren Ellis.
Who is Warren Ellis? Going into the book, I had no idea who he was – Crooked Little Vein is his first novel – but it turns out he is big, big, big in the world of graphic novels. Who knew? I haven’t read a graphic novel in a long time, but I do like the man’s sense of humour. If I had to liken it to another work of fiction, I’d struggle. Imagine Charles Bukowski’s “Pulp” rewritten as a movie-length South Park episode and you’re getting close.
The story moves quickly, as it must. In chapter two McGill picks up a love interest to accompany him. Chapter three consists of only twenty-nine words, but they’re good ones. McGill, a.k.a. “the shit magnet”, travels across the country attracting some of the sickest and most bizarre people ever existing or invented. Have you ever heard of scrotal infusion? You won’t be able to get the images out of your head after you read this, I promise you. And then there’s the baby Jesus butt-plug.
This is comedy at its blackest and it’s far from subtle. I picked the book out of the general fiction section, but I dearly wish it had its own genre, if only so I could join it.