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'Night Train' by Martin Amis

A Welcome New Voice

Saturday, May 23, 1998

By Michael Helfand


Night Train

By Martin Amis

Harmony Books


When a highly acclaimed novelist tries his hand at a popular form, you can expect at least an interesting book. "Night Train," by the British writer (and son of novelist Kingsley Amis) is both an interesting and quite readable crime novel, a noir police procedural set in contemporary New York City.

A quick summary of the plot doesn't do justice to the real interest of the novel. Mike Hoolihan is a veteran homicide detective in the New York police department.

Hoolihan gets called to investigate an apparent suicide. It turns out that the dead person, Jennifer Rockwell, is Hoolihan's friend and the daughter of her former boss, Col. Tom Rockwell. Oh, yes - Mike is a woman. That's just one of the oddities in this seemingly conventional story.

This looks like it is going to be a routine investigation. Jennifer is found nude, seated in a chair with a small caliber gun in her hand and a hole in the back of her head. Suicide is Hoolihan's first guess - indeed everyone's first guess. She gets a call from Colonel Tom to look into the case again. At that point, things start to get strange.

There was no suicide note, which was odd, and Jennifer had no apparent reason for committing suicide. She was an emotionally upbeat person who did well at her work and had a long, stable relation ship with Trader Faulkner, a philosophy professor interested in linguistics and science.

Faulkner is an immediate suspect when the coroner discovers that three shots were fired into Jennifer's head. As one of the cynical, witty cops remarks, "You shoot yourself once in the mouth. That's life. You shoot yourself twice. Hey - accidents happen. You shoot yourself three times. You got to really want to go."

Can someone really shoot themselves in the head three times before dying? Well, a little research shows that it has happened. So it is possible that Jennifer "took the night train," cop slang for suicide. Mike continues her investigation and turns up a number of promising leads involving drugs, sex, mental illness - all the usual possibilities - and at the same time she begins to question whether she really knew this woman at all. There are so many oddities in the case, so many loose ends, but then that is true for her own life and the lives of other people as well.

Here's a book written by a man fascinated by life's ambiguities, by American popular culture (especially the influence of TV and film versions of police work) and by American slang. It is linguistically rich, funny and awful by turns, and best of all, it puts the mystery back into mysteries.

Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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