Sunday, August 1, 2010

Night Train by Martin Amis

Night Train (1997) is the only Martin Amis novel told from the perspective of a female protagonist, albeit a police with a rather masculine name, Mike Hoolihan. It is named after the song Night Train, originally written by Jimmy Forrest in 1952 and was a #1 R&B hit. James Brown covered it in 1962 and it is on his 1963 album Live at the Apollo and is also featured in the well known 1964 concert film T.A.M.I. Show. Diana Krall plays Night Train on Elvis Costello's UK television show "Spectacle" (both Brown and Krall on
We know that police Mike Hoolihan is a recovering alcoholic (she knows alcohol will kill her) and had been sexually abused as a child (p. 104) and had acted violently against her father at age 10. She wonders why her father called her Mike if he intended to abuse her, "Was he a fruit, too, on top of everything else ?" (p. 125). She is re-enlisted to homicide to investigate an apparent yet incomprehensible suicide by her former mentor and chief's daughter, Jennifer Rockwell. The crime scene consists of the nude corpse, but with 3 gunshot wounds to the head with a .22 revolver as well as lithium showing up in the "tox screen." As the pathologist, Paulie No, dissected her body, I had a recurring image of Courtney Love's song Jennifer's Body, with the recurring line "found pieces of Jennifer's body....", funny coincidence in that the unnamed location of the novel could easily be Portland or Seattle based on the geographic description, albeit vague.
Readers complain that this whodunit really has no payoff. A case can be made that it is really not a crime novel, because it is about suicide. Amis has a habit of subverting what we expect of plot. Patricia McGrath, reviewing the book in The New York Times (Feb 1, 1998) gets it, she invokes "the trope of the double being brought into play." Like Amis' masterpiece Money, heavily contemplating suicide, many characters are paired, like the "characters" Martin Amis and Martina Twain (hey, twain means double !) as foils to the protagonist John Self. In Night Train, Jennifer Rockwell, benefiting from all the advantages of privilege is paired with Mike Hoolihan, who is investigating a woman who enjoyed a life she never had. Despite or because of their differences, Mike is investigating herself as well as the victim. In Amis' novels, the craftier characters come out on top, or do they ? How will Mike cope with the information ? Especially when she realizes that Jennifer laid a red herring trail for her of false leads, knowing she was coming. Will death come out on top ? In the final scene of the novel, Hoolihan heads for the bar. Case closed.
In an interview (2/5/98) with Charlie Rose ( Amis reveals how enervating it was to write in the first person as a "woman", in an unmediated manner. He also reveals that he had an illegitimate daughter, Delilah, whose "father" committed suicide 10 years prior to this book, which had a huge impact on him.

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