Review by Claire McManus

Our book club's novel for February was Night Train, by Martin Amis, which we'd selected from a series of proposed books that our members described as "quirky" or "out of the ordinary." We picked Night Train not only because of the author's reputation but also because of its brevity (175 pages).

Our discussion started with a fairly lengthy of what exactly genre fiction is. Night Train has all the elements of a traditional hard-boiled mystery: a hard-edged, bitter, cynical female cop who has been done dirt by the world, and who is barely holding on to her few remaining relationships. It also has what one would consider a traditional plot—the narrator's ("Mike" Hoolihan) mentor's daughter has committed suicide, but no one can accept this—and Mike is dispatched to find out what really happened. And, finally, the book is told in what could be considered the common sort of criminal/underworld/police patois that we have seen in noir fiction for decades (and which led some of us to wonder if people ever really talk(ed) like this, or if this is a hyperstylized made-up language that is "real" only in the world of fiction).

So why, then, does the book feel so surreal, and so non-standard? The book takes place in an unnamed American city with a reputation for being tough, but the language seems more British than American, beginning with the opening line "I am a police." Such an opening line almost sets up the expectation that you're going to be in a world you don't recognize or know much about—and that does indeed turn out to be the case. While the investigation does proceed on a more-or-less understandable, the book's final "reveal" is disturbing and completely unexpected (I can't say more without spoilers, but anyone who has read this book will know what I mean).

And it was in the ending that we had our most intense discussion, with the members pretty evenly divided. Some felt that reading the book had been an off-kilter experience for them throughout, as if they were caught in a strange alternate reality somewhere between fiction and real life. Others felt that the book and the ending were all the more satisfying because they are more "realistic" in terms of what life is really like—inconsistent characters, a series of events more than a "plotline" created and maintained by an author/narrator, and a conclusion that doesn't fit anyone's expectations of how a crime novel should end.

All in all, while we were divided on how much we "liked" the book, we all agreed that it was a singularly worthy read—a book, unlike so many mysteries, that can sustain long bouts of discussion. What I personally found so interesting about the discussion was that I was able to see all points of view. I understood why some people felt so passionately about the book's ground-breaking aspects, and I also understood why some people felt so frustrated (even robbed) by it. This is certainly an important book, and I think it's worth a read if you can handle intense discussions of suicide, alcoholism, and many other unpleasant things about life.

For next month's book, we've decided we're going to try some newer writers. We're looking forward to reading some newer writers and seeing how they carry on the great tradition of mystery and suspense books. I look forward to posting our thoughts.


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