by Warren Ellis
Men who have sex with drugged ostriches are far from the strangest situation that private detective Mike McGill finds himself investigating. The underground, the disturbing, the depraved — all of it seems to find him, whether he likes it or not. Somewhat depressed and living in his office after his girlfriend leaves him, one morning he receives a visit from the White House Chief of Staff.
“You’re looking at me strangely, son.”
I smiled, shook my head. “It’s just what TV does to us. You say ‘chief of staff’ and I expect John Spencer from The West Wing, you know? I don’t suppose you’re a genial man of Chicago with a drink problem, right?”
“Hell, no. I take heroin, son.”
Within minutes, he’s given a handheld computer, half a million dollars in his bank account, and instructions to find the “other” Constitution of the United States. Traded for years in exchange for keeping secrets and power, it is the document composed by several of the Founders, detailing their real intent for American society. The White House would like it back and to put it into effect. One more thing: “You talk about this, the Office of Homeland Security turns you into pink mist. There will be Shock and Awe, you understand?”
He has no choice but to understand. When the first lead takes him to a Godzilla bukkake theater, he leaves not only a bit nauseous, but having met Trix. She’s writing a thesis on extremes of self-inflicted human experience. They team up, and over the course of their travels, each situation becomes more bizarre than the next.
At a little over 50,000 words, Crooked Little Vein is a quick, straightforward read. It’s the sort of book where you laugh through a grimace — “Ohh, that’s gross. Funny, but gross.” You want to keep reading, but the story goes beyond morbid fascination. Warren Ellis creates a narrative that’s both compelling and thought-provoking, asking all the while what the pursuit of liberty and happiness really means in the modern world.
“Look,” I said. “You don’t get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you’ve got America.”
I’m a big Warren Ellis fan, with several of his graphic novel and his comics work sitting on my shelf, as well as being a regular reader of his various online alcoves. His work deals with the unconventional, ideas that seem like that product of an extremely active imagination, until you start reading the news stories he uses as research notes.
I’m also a big fan of things I like overlapping. The West Wing is one of my all-time favorite television shows. For years, Ellis has talked about his respect for Aaron Sorkin’s work, about how he’s the kind of writer who makes you want to chop off your own hands because you’ll never compare. Knowing that, the aforementioned reference and dialogue like this really made me laugh:
“CIA’s been running Aaron Sorkin for years. He leaks this stuff out under cover of fiction to test the waters. Every time he gets too cute we plant crack on him in airports. Or make him write Studio 60.”
(I wanted to love Studio 60, I really did, but he did kind of botch it.)
So while Crooked Little Vein may not be for the faint of heart, nor the sort of book you’d pass along to your conservative grandmother, I still wholeheartedly recommend reading it. When you’re done, get your mitts on Global Frequency or Desolation Jones, or read the weekly (and free!) FreakAngels. Welcome to a never-ending back catalogue and your latest addiction. You’re welcome.
Book # 4/52
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.
This review also appeared on the Pajiba site itself on Dec. 8th.