Portrait by Angela Gorgas, National Portrait Gallery

‘Night Train’ by Martin Amis

Who says genre doesn’t have a place in literature?

Martin Amis is famous for being the son of Kingsley Amis, a writer made ‘Sir’. He is famous for once having spent £20,000 on getting his teeth fixed. He is famous for being a close friend of Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton. He is famous because his novels ‘London Fields’ and ‘Money’ had critics falling over themselves to offer praise, and because his novel ‘Yellow Dog’ had critics falling over themselves to wax lyrically on just how bad a disappointment it was.

For me, he is famous because of ‘Night Train’.

‘Night Train’ belongs to that special class of fiction, the literary genre novel. Amis takes the conventions of the crime genre, and more specifically the hardboiled noir genre; he plays with them, he turns them on their head, and he delivers as a result one of the most scintillating pieces of fiction in a generation.

All of the components of the genre are in place, but tangled and messed up, like the death at the centre of the novel. ‘Night Train’ is jazz: it’s discordant and yet seamless and rhythmic.

There is a femme fatale, but she’s the dead woman at the centre of the novel – she’s Jennifer Rockwell, daughter of Colonel Tom Rockwell, a man whose star in the world of the police has not yet done rising. Her apparent suicide has left everyone searching for answers, but it falls to Mike Hoolihan, a policewoman often mistaken for a man, to untangle the knot of mysteries.

The dialogue is what you might call punchy. It is dramatically rendered, reading almost like a screen play, often with the punctuation and speech markers (‘he said’ etc) stripped away; this is done deliberately, of course, since everything in this short book is deliberate. It echoes the continuing refrain in the text that the world has become TV, especially the police: ‘No profession has become so massively fictionalized.’

As you would expect in hardboiled noir, there is a vernacular too, one that seems fitting and adds to the sense of dynamism in both the narration and the dialogue. Mike is neither policeman nor policewoman, she is ‘a police’. Good cases are ‘ketchup’. Amis, of course, knows well how to use language to create a world all his own; notice how in ‘Money’ the expensive loft apartments and bachelor studios are never referred to directly, but are instead called ‘socks’. It works, and it works magnificently.

The story loops, as so much good noir does. Remember ‘Double Indemnity’, and how the story is told to us by Fred MacMurray as he lays there bleeding out? We don’t know why he got shot, but as we listen to his rasping voice and observe the extended flashback that sets his story out for us, we slowly learn the what, the how, and the why. The same thing happens here, in its way, but you don’t realise until the very end. Don’t stop reading the book when you turn the final page, because the final page is around page four, not page one hundred and fifty.

And what kind of noir would this be without foreshadowing? There is no rifle hanging on the wall, à la Chekhov, but the references to alcohol are legion, and Mike, who knew Jennifer for most of her life, is a recovering alcoholic. She puts it this way: alcoholism ‘is suicide on the installment plan.’ We do not hear the report of a rifle firing, but the book tails off in such a way as to suggest that it was loaded all along, just waiting for that trigger finger to start itching again.

There is something in every paragraph, in every sentence, that takes you by the shoulders and gives you a good hard shake. There’s so much to appreciate that I have to contain my enthusiasm and let you read the book for yourself instead of just quoting every single line. But some I love, like this riff on the police’s racist tendencies:

“Anyone can become a police – Jews, blacks, Asians, women – and once you’re there you’re a member of a race called police, which is obliged to hate every other race.”

Or on suicide:

“As a subject for study, suicide is perhaps uniquely incoherent. And the act itself is without shape and without form. The human project implodes, contorts inward – shameful, infantile, writhing, gesturing. It’s a mess in there.”

If there’s anyone who can do names it’s Martin Amis. He is a master in the creation of the at once outlandish and yet passingly familiar. Look past Jennifer Rockwell, look past Mike Hoolihan (though giving a woman this particular man’s name is just plain artistic); Jennifer’s lover is Trader Faulkner (there must have been a nod south here); Jennifer’s immediate superior in academia is Bax Denziger, and her doctor is Hi Tulkinghorn; Mike Hoolihan’s colleagues include in their number Keith Booker (and there’s a reference lurking in there to ‘London Fields’ and Keith Talent), Oltan O’Boye, and a coroner called Paulie No (hence ‘Dr No’) who looks ‘like Fu Manchu’s nephew.’ I don’t know many other writers with such a talent – such a flare – for names.

Like any good noir, the conclusion to the tale comes all in a rush. Suddenly the mystery resolves itself, and even though Mike is narrating to us, she keeps us in the dark a few pages longer, as if she wants to show us what she means, not tell us. Like she keeps saying all through her investigation, Jennifer was ‘a cop’s daughter. This means something. This has to matter.’ And it does. Though the case is solved almost immediately, that’s not the point, just as it wasn't the point in Victor Serge’s ‘The Case of Comrade Tulayev.’ What comes after the puzzle’s solution is far more dramatic.

It is easy to dismiss genre writing, and I often do. At its worst it is clumsy, predictable, often misogynistic, and ridden in cliché. Amis, with ‘Night Train’, has added to what you could call the literary genre canon; it contains but is not limited to Walter Mosley’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’, Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass’, and Peter Høeg’s ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’. Each is a masterpiece in its own way; each revels in toying with what you think you know about the crime genre.

And what about the ‘Night Train’ of the title? A little understanding goes a long way: ‘Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness.’