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Monday, July 09, 2007

Crooked Little Vein -- "Crime and sex are inextricably linked, I have found." So says one of the plethora of bizarre and sordid characters private detective Mike McGill meets over the course of Warren Ellis's first prose novel. Readers of Crooked Little Vein will find crime and sex are bound up in each other, in ways most of us probably are only peripherally aware of.

But we're more and more aware of the strangeness of the world, thanks to the internet and its ability to provide instant information to anyone who wants it and can score access to a computer hooked up to the web. Humans have been doing weird shit to themselves, others and farm animals since probably before spoken language was even codified, but we never knew how widespread sexual strangeness could be, or how much of an audience it could muster, until the internet came along and shattered all our illusions. Ellis -- and better him than me, I must say -- has spent years prowling the web for the worst of what is out there, and Crooked Little Vein works as both a gripping mystery novel and a more-or-less true-life travelogue of the perverse.

If you've read any of Warren Ellis's comics work, especially Transmetropolitan and Desolation Jones, the first few pages of Crooked Little Vein might seem familiar. Mike McGill is an embittered but ultimately good-hearted private eye -- an admitted "shit magnet" -- who is tasked with uncovering a hidden truth that goes to the very heart of American culture, and is set-upon by vile and outrageous obstacles. A rat pisses in his coffee. A cutting-edge cell phone is introduced. A young woman with tattoos and many lovers of both genders comes on the scene. It's not, as I say, unfamilar, at least to devotees of Ellis's comics writing (of which I am one, it should be noted). But it's also entertaining and even enlightening stuff. I had a hard time putting the book down, honestly, and that was a pleasant surprise.

So if you're familiar with Ellis's comics work, try to see past your initial instinct that this will be more of Ellis plowing the same Pete Wisdom/Spider Jerusalem/Richard Fell kind of character that he does so well, or at least so often, and give yourself over to a particularly delicious ride.

Ellis teaming up his curmudgeonly bastard with a hot bisexual young woman is not the plot of the story, anyway -- it's merely the setup for what unfolds. And even the setup, once underway, is an amusing bit of business. What makes it work is the honest humanity Ellis injects into private detective Mike McGill. Utterly charming is the way in which McGill comes to grips with his relationship with Trix, his unpredictable and straightforwardly lusty partner in his investigation. What happens between them doesn't seem entirely likely in the real world, but the way Ellis sketches out the dynamics of Trix's personality, it becomes not only possible but logical. There's a real energy in their interplay, and their scenes together are a uniform delight. Crooked Little Vein's hidden depths lie in the growth Trix forces on McGill, and in his struggles with having his eyes opened to more than just the bizarre antics he keeps stumbling into.

Over the 276 pages, Ellis takes McGill and Trix on a journey through America's not-so-secret perversions, which are recounted in excruciatingly convincing detail. If the saline solution sequence made me squirm in discomfort, well, it was meant to, and I have a feeling that every weird sexual practice we learn about has a firm basis in reality. You'll come away from Crooked Little Vein knowing perhaps more than you ever thought you would about what people are doing to themselves and each other out there in the world, and while some sequences are definitely over-the-top -- the confrontation on the Roanoke Ranch, for example -- Ellis has a hell of a lot of fun with McGill's resigned sense of horror, and even more with the shenanigans of the White House Chief of Staff, who gets many of the book's best lines.

McGill and Trix are surprisingly rich in their characterization, adding an unexpected but altogether welcome level of nuance. You may wince here and there, if you haven't been paying attention to what has become mainstream in American sexual life, and you may find this sequence or that just a tad convenient, broadly drawn or didactic (a funny word to use, given what we're being educated about). But the book is never boring, and the lead characters honestly earn our interest and even concern. Crooked Little Vein ultimately delivers on its promises, rewarding readers with a bizarre and twisted adventure story.



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