Amis Talks American, Takes a Metaphysical Meander

Night Train , by Martin Amis. Harmony, 175 pages, $20.

Martin Amis has a thing about ketchup. That’s the term he uses for the smothering sauce of ersatz that Hollywood and television plop all over the American scene. Everywhere we look, tacky imitation, like ketchup for blood; everything is an imitation of itself or something else. Mr. Amis, a British novelist whose every sentence yearns for the unique, is seesaw-ambivalent about “copycat” culture and its endlessly self-replicating entertainments. He’s hooked on the rerun romance of America, but also he hates it. He wants the real McCoy, the genuine article, though he knows of course that the ur-American item is always, even back at the beginning, just an authentic reproduction.

All of which makes Night Train a tricky book. Part police procedural, part gumshoe-noir, Night Train looks at first like pure pastiche. Mr. Amis mimics an American voice, female, a police voice, streetwise and unsophisticated. The voice belongs to Detective Mike Hoolihan-yes, Mike is female, “a 44-year-old police with coarse blonde hair, bruiser’s tits and broad shoulders, and pale blue eyes in her head that have seen everything.” She’s a precariously recovered drunk with a squalid past and a maybe future.

Of course you recognize at once the costumes, the set, the mugs of the character actors-all the dense layers of detective story convention. But the tale Mike tells is supposed to surprise. This case, she claims, delivers “a piece of new news: Something never seen before.” Mr. Amis wants to turn the murder mystery inside out and upside down. He swaps the relatively trivial who and how of homicide for the cosmic why of suicide. He asks hard-boiled Mike to step out for a metaphysical meander.

That’s the trickiest part, though I should say right away that I enjoyed the whole thing, even when I worried, briefly, that Mr. Amis was headed for the hazy imponderables of Paul Auster territory. Night Train is a short, thrilling ride to a strange, “absolutely somber” place-with plenty of familiar and well-loved scenery along the way.

The victim is Jennifer Rockwell, daughter of Colonel Tom, Mike’s police department mentor. Nobody can believe that Jennifer killed herself. She was brilliant and gorgeous, apparently happy and fulfilled, a 28-year-old astrophysicist with a body that stopped traffic and a sweet temperament-says Mike, “She had it all and she had it all, and then she had some more.” And yet she sat herself down in the corner of her room, naked except for a towel “turbaned around her head,” stuck a .22 in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.

The crime scene is unambiguous. “It is sometimes true that an apparent suicide will, on inspection, come back a homicide,” Mike explains. “But that inspection takes about two seconds.” When Colonel Tom pleads with Mike to investigate further-“Bring me something I can live with. Because I can’t live with this”-she knows and you know that the shattered father is simply in denial.

Always a trouper, Mike does diligent detective work, her job complicated by the autopsy results: Three shots were fired into Jennifer’s brain. Foul play? Nope. One of Mike’s colleagues recaps the action: “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.” The rest of the novel repeats this basic pattern: New evidence points to murder, then doubles back to shore up the case for suicide. With each new piece of the puzzle, the cosmic why seems colder and further out of reach, a riddle from a distant galaxy.

Mr. Amis puts himself in a curious bind. If he comes up with a killer, he makes everybody happy: He spares us the hideousness of looking in the face a blunt refusal of life. Every suicide calls into question the thing we hold most dear. Jennifer’s self-slaughter, because she “had it all,” rubs salt in the wound. But wait. If Mr. Amis delivers a “perp,” a guilty party who is not also the victim, it will be a total dodge. A mini-series evasion of messy truth in favor of tidy entertainment.

Listen to Mike rant: “With TV you expect everything to measure up. Things are meant to measure up. The punishment will answer the crime. The crime will fall within the psychological profile of the malefactor. The alibi will disintegrate. The gun will smoke. The veiled woman will suddenly appear in the courthouse.” Mike notices, as she inspects the crime scene, that Jennifer doesn’t own a television set-“This means something,” she says. “This has to matter.”

The absence of a television reminds us (again) that Jennifer is exceptional, that she refuses what most people crave. She’s too good to be true, which is part of Mr. Amis’ joke. He balances Jennifer, unblemished and unbelievable, against Mike the convincing cliché. We swallow Mike without a second thought. Jennifer sticks in the craw.

She was an astrophysicist; her job is Mr. Amis’ excuse for introducing Big Questions. Her boyfriend, a university professor with the unlikely and suspicious name of Trader Faulkner, is a philosopher of language interested in the “interpretation of relative states”-in other words, “parallel universes.” Too much speculative stargazing threatens to launch Night Train into the ether. We’re subjected to a lecture on black holes (they “mean oblivion. Mean death”), and we’re taught that “90 percent of the universe consists of dark matter, and we don’t know what that dark matter is.” But before we lose ourselves on a space odyssey, Mr. Amis guides us back to the unnamed, “second-echelon” West Coast city where the trigger was pulled (thrice). He plunks us down at the Mallard, a faux-elegant duck-decorated bar and gets good and gritty again.

Mr. Amis just loves talking American. You catch him now and then rolling the phrases on his tongue. He loves police talk, too. Here’s Mike introducing the coroner: “Paulie No, as we say, is a state cutter. He cuts for the state. He dissects people’s bodies and tells you how come they died.” The jargon is great, but what clinches it is the “how come.” Pitch perfect.

Toward the end of the novel, Mike ponders copycat murders-and copycat suicides. She waxes philosophical: “I believe that copycat is as old as Homer, older, older than the first story daubed in shit on the wall of the cave. It precedes the fireside yarn. It precedes fire.” You can hear a trace of Mr. Amis’ accent distorting her voice. It’s Mr. Amis who is obsessed with “copycat,” morbidly aware that all police department chatter now echoes Hill Street Blues and its latter-day clones. And he knows that these endless look-alike television scripts borrowed in turn from hard-boiled crime fiction. “No profession,” says Mike, “has been so massively fictionalized.”

Mr. Amis still nurses faith in originality. Jennifer Rockwell is his “new news,” a story you’ve never heard (and probably won’t believe). Her “absolutely somber” death is a spark of light, the breath of creation. Jennifer represents the kernel of unacceptable truth that sets apart the genuine author and his authentic message. The rest is ketchup-“Ketchup from a squeezer that’s getting crusty around the spout.”

Amis Talks American, Takes a Metaphysical Meander