Night Train

Allen Barra reviews 'Night Train' by Martin Amis.

Published January 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Martin Amis' "Night Train" is being billed as a kind of serious author's
holiday, a genre vacation between his thick, clever, mostly "serious"
works. The Brit press is roasting him for it. Well, screw them. Many
other serious novelists have taken a little time off now and then --
there are certainly those of us who prefer what Graham Greene called his
"entertainments" to his longer, presumably less entertaining books.

And "Night Train" is entertaining. It's a detective story about the
suicide or murder of a young woman who had everything those around her
wanted: beauty, wit, vivacity, health and a stimulating career. The
characters, particularly Detective "Mike" Hoolihan -- the quotes are
because Mike is female -- are crisp and entertaining. And the solution to
the death is original while remaining faithful to murder classic
conventions. This last point is no small one: As Borges once observed,
the American detective story is generally a disappointment precisely
because its solutions don't satisfy the curiosity that the plot has

"Night Train" is a disappointment for opposite reasons. Amis has never
been much interested in character, motivation and plot, which aren't
considered major virtues in an era when technique holds court, but at the
kid's table of crime fiction, they're essential. You feel as if Amis does
care about his characters, perhaps more than he's cared about most of
those in his previous novels, but doesn't know how to give voice to that
concern. "Night Train" feels rootless. "Mike" is convincing as neither a
woman nor an American, and the unnamed city Amis places her in gives off
no heat. (One suspects it's a pastiche of American big cities that Amis
has glimpsed during book tours.) It's true that Elmore Leonard, one of
Amis' idols, also doesn't waste a lot of time in description of local
fauna, but with Leonard's deft paintbrush strokes, he doesn't need a lot
of time to make you feel as if you're in a particular place. The city in
"Night Train" is like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: There's no there.

To cover these deficiencies Amis falls back on the mechanics of the
murder mystery plot -- a peculiar homage to Leonard, whose books (like
most of Dashiell Hammett's) aren't mysteries. Amis may not like it, but
the author "Night Train" draws most comparison with is Raymond Chandler, for whom Amis has a well-known contempt. The book's best lines -- "Guys? She combed them out of her hair" and "You wouldn't pray for a body like that -- but something was wrong with it. It was dead." -- sound much more
like Chandler than like Leonard, as does Mike Hoolihan's Philip Marlowe-like
narration. "Suicide is the night train," she tells us, "speeding your way
to darkness ... this train takes you into the night, and leaves you
there." To which Marlowe might have replied, "What did it matter where
you lay once you are dead? You were dead, you were sleeping the big
sleep, you weren't bothered by things like that."

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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