on 20 January 1999
When it was released, some critics harped on about how Night Train was disappointly 'un-Amisian'...a short, sleek noir thriller after the great bibles of 'The Information', 'London Fields' and 'Money'. Reading Night Train myself, I found it is startlingly different and yet very much the same. His use of language dazzles as ever before, his key protagonist is once again a delightfully dark anti-hero whose had the weight of the world dumped on them, and the ideas he's juggling with once again concern our place in the cosmos. Some may have felt short-changed by Night Train's brief 'journey', as it were, but I felt it was pitched exactly right. This is the story of a suicide, a suicide like no other, and the charged, focused, slender narrative seems to compliment the subject of mortality very well. In Mike Hoolihan, Amis has created another beautifully corrupt individual, and the juxtaposition of this character with the glamorous American-Dreamy suicidee, is utterly riveting. It may appear un-Amisian, but remember Amis has always been a trickster, and this book may constitute his coolest trick yet. There's far more to it than meets the seeing eye. But then that's something he tells you himself right in the thick of it. Read it.
'Night Train', published in 1997, belongs to the period of unexpected decline in Martin Amis' reputation as a novelist, which runs roughly from the ambivalent reception of 'The Information' in 1995 to the partial rehabilitation that begins with 'House of Meetings' ten years later. During this decade, Amis seemed to be struggling consciously to avoid self-imitation by finding new themes, but his diversions into non-fiction often seemed more successful than his novels and short stories. 'Night Train' is one example of this search; a excursion into hard-boiled noir fiction set in an unnamed American city.
Amis has clearly done his research; in fact, the tone and trappings and much of the language seem taken not from pulp fiction as such but from such books of police reportage as David Simon's 'Homicide - A Year On the Killing Streets' (1991), which was set in Baltimore. Amis being Amis, this framework has been tweaked in the direction of postmodern knowingness. The result is a heightened hybrid of fiction and verisimilitude that is almost but not entirely convincing as the language of plausible human beings.
The basic noir plot - a detective with a troubled personal life is called in to investigate an apparent suicide that may not be what it seems - might be straight from Chandler. But again, Amis must complicate. 'Night Train' is one of those literary genre novels that cannot be content with the straightforward pleasures of the detective thriller. Instead it persistently evolves towards the status of metaphysical mystery, with the enigmatic figure of the 'suicide' at its centre and the living characters revolving around it like doomed planets round a black hole.
Amis is too good a writer for anything he produces to be worthless, and it may be that in time the books of this period will be seen as undervalued. A concise 160 pages, 'Night Train' never overstays its welcome. There is an invigorating, nasty edge here, too - Amis can be funny and unforgiving about human weakness - that will be familiar to readers who rate the early Amis above the more famous Amis of 'Money' and 'London Fields'. There is also a hint of the controversial Amis in the obsession with unstable, manipulative females that has given him a reputation in some circles for misogyny.
Nonetheless, for me 'Night Train' struggled in the end to escape the sense of an exercise by a writer who is playing without full commitment with material that is somewhat below his highest powers. Amis has never repeated the experiment. Admirers will want to read this; but it seems inescapably minor.
on 8 May 2003
I have a thing with Martin Amis. Most of his books are about not seeing any point in what you do, what people do or what he does. But then again, he writes books about that, so there 's always some meaning shimmering between his sentences. That really works with me.
"Night train" gives you more of the same, but differently. There's a kind of played detective-like irony with a funny touch in the tone. And since this is a thin book, the action is compressed, which makes it all the more powerful and haunting, but light as well. Great book to start discovering Amis.
on 11 August 1999
After the gargantuan overblown monster that was The Information, Martin Amis returned to the kind of structural economy and tightness of narrative that characterised his early novels and latterly Time's Arrow. The usual obsessions with death, decay and human folly are rendered into very sharp perspective by the unornamented nature of the plot and the contrived but mostly authentic lilt of the prose style.
On balance, Night Train can be regarded as a return to form. In Mike Hoolihan it has the best anti-hero since Keith Talent in London Fields (and how long ago was that) and the grotesqueries match and exceed anything in Einstein's Monsters.
Amis has yet to repeat the combination of consistency of vision, gripping narrative and length that characterised Money (for many his best work to date). But this short sprint is better than many authors' marathons. And forget comparisons with Elmore leonard. This is the world of James Ellroy, but seen askance from the outside, compared with Ellroy's stream-of-consciousness insanity.
Like the eponymous locomotive, the novel unsettles and disturbs, then rattles on by, leaving darkness in its wake.
This book is disconcerting, both in style and content. In style, for me, because the only other Amis I have read is 'The Rachel Papers'. Thus the American English narrative, while thoroughly apt, given the setting, jars a little to begin with. As does the fact that Amis has adopted a female voice - husky, butch and saddled with a male name, but female all the same.
This unease and discomfort is entirely in keeping, furthermore, with the shocking plot line. Mike's friend, the seemingly perfect Jennifer, is found dead one evening, naked, with a .22 gun in her mouth. Because she was so happy, intelligent, beautiful, so perfect, her family want to believe it was murder. It couldn't be suicide, could it? Jennifer could never do that. If she had, the 'why?' would be forever following them around, leaving a trail of agony and discomfort in its wake.
That Amis never reconciles himself, the protagonist, or us to this pointlessness is entirely to his credit. Life is like that. Sometimes, there just is no perfect resolution.
In summary, then, a combination of impeccable plotting, believable characterisation and a fearless examination of one of life's most difficult issues - its cessation, all delivered in wholly appropriate, breakneck, no-nonsense prose, makes this slim volume, if you'll pardon the pun, a sure-fire winner.
on 7 October 2011
I caught up with this poorly reviewed Amis novel years after the event, and I'm glad I did. It's a pastiche of American noir, written with economy, wit and not a little intelligence about an inexplicable suicide of a 'perfect woman', told through the eyes of an imperfect female cop called Mike.
His usual readers might be underwhelmed, but it is a fascinating exercise, more than Time's Arrow or his Russian gulag novel, as he captures the spirit of the genre and adds a bit of Amis philosophy to it. Why would the perfect woman kill herself? She was not perfect, as nothing in this world is. The novel is written in short sentences, punchy prose, and is a model of concise and effective mystery.
I am an unashamed Amis fan - I find him incredibly bright, unusual and a very un-English writer. This book is entertaining and stimulating in a way that no other Amis novel is. I am glad he loves the genre, as I do.
on 5 May 1999
The point of Martin Amis' Night Train is that there is no point. And that pointlessness cannot be explained. Jennifer Rockwell, blonde beautiful, brain bigger than Pluto, kills herself with two bullets to the head. Why? is what Detective Mike Holihan tries to uncover. She fails, miserably. There is no why. The more she finds out, the less she knows. The great irony of this small masterpiece, I feel, is that Martin Amis has written a detective novel where there is no dénouement. Only Amis would think to do this, and know that in 1999, it is the only way to do this. There's no more happy endings. And we don't even know why. Buy this book. Ignore the critics: they've missed the point. They always do. Buy Night Train, file in-between Laughter In The Dark and The Long Goodbye. This is Philip Marlowe re-written by Philip Larkin.
on 13 February 2012
Night Train does not work on any level. Despite having read and watched American police genres, American is clearly a foreign language to Amis--he could have used a translator. Just a glaring example, Mike visits the doctor at his "surgery." An American would of course say "office," as the term "surgery" means an operation that involves a scalpel. And I simply do not believe the silly construction of "I am a police" that is repeated for seemingly no reason.
The narrator (and main character) is an unattractive and unbelievable caricature. A girl named Mike. Walks like a boy, talks like a boy, but wants to be a girl. Sort of like having two tits on a bull.
The worst part of the book is that it is not a novel or story at all, but rather a Bunyonesque parable. Jennifer Rockford is not merely an excellent human specimen, but a perfect human being. Mike would be a stereotypical "Law & Order" tough cop with an interesting (if predictable) psychological background, except for Amis's awkward overlay of a British sensibility on an ostensibly American character. In fact every character is merely a type or a two-dimensional symbol. Amis seems to have a message better suited to an essay--perhaps; or maybe he does not have enough material for an essay. The point merely being that we are headed for nothingness. It may be a profound truth, but has no more substance to it than the nothingness itself.
I invite anyone new to this ersatz crime novel, or indeed anyone new to M Amis, to read its first page, or the quotes in Amazon's synopsis for that matter. If you are not irritated by his pretentiousness, or frustrated by his usual inability to compose a natural sentence - then by all means read on.
Martin's dad once said, regarding his son's style of writing (which he didn't think much of) something like: 'If only he would occasionally write a simple sentence such as "They finished their drinks and left".' Oh, if only. No, Amis fils will never stoop to write such a hackneyed sentence, it would be beneath him. In his obsessive avoidance of cliche - about which he's written at tedious length - he avoids the human, the humbly mundane, and those epiphanic moments every writer worth the name strives for, since in his obsession he merely ends up sounding laughably self-conscious and terminally artificial.
You could make a case for saying he is, in effect, no better a writer than, say, Jeffrey Archer. The difference is that Archer writes as well as he knows how (and I am no fan, believe me) whereas Amis could presumably write much better than he does if he wished to. Or could he...? There's the rub.
If you want further proof of this drastically overrated author, read the 'Prelude' to his novel London Fields, at the close of which he repeats the name of the novel three - three! - times in a row, for no evident reason other than his inability to exercise restraint. It's a kind of classy pornography - in the broader sense of the word - but no less insidious than that of the less classy J Archer or Dan Brown. Or try the opening sentence of The Information, with that '...I feel...', yet one more indication that Amis is incapable of getting out of the way of his fiction and allowing it to speak for itself.
Or simply try and get through Yellow Dog.
Amis is, as I am, a big fan of good US crime thrillers, in particular the great Elmore Leonard, and I daresay he wrote this absurdity partly in tribute. But the opening passage - in which we are introduced to the pointlessly named Mike Hoolihan (who, as narrator, needs therefore to explain to we poor, captive readers of the whimsical yet oddly humourless Amis that she is in fact - gasp! - a woman) and her assertion 'I am a police', left me wondering what on earth Amis was trying to do, achieve, or prove. He always does this: sets up literary 'tricks' for his readers, as if we can`t be trusted with a narrative that runs too smoothly. So he puts obstacles in our path, for no other reason than his addiction to avoiding cliche. As I say, he only ends up avoiding the very stuff of life, and rendering at least one reader incapable of tolerating any more of the man`s self-obsessed, smug, attitudinising phrase-making. Oh, and I need hardly say that, having read a huge number of crime novels, including many from the States, I have never once come across the term 'a police' (though it does indeed exist, much to my surprise). Trust Amis to dig it up from its arcane obscurity.
So, I say:
on 16 December 1999
The prose is purer,the debt to Camus and Chandler is clear. Like Mike Figgis' film 'Leaving Las Vegas,'this chronicles the singular beuaty and poignancy of a seemingly nihilistic universe.