A new novel by Martin Amis is always controversial. Joan Smith dissects his latest creation, a hard-boiled American female cop
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The Independent Culture
First there were private eyes, tough guys who wise-cracked their

way through the corruption of American cities during the Depression. Then came the women, V I Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone, proving themselves as tough as any man - though with V I, you can never quite tell. Sara Paretsky's novels about a female private eye are crammed with anxious details about clothes and shoes, as though not even her creator is absolutely convinced of her femininity.

Now we have Mike Hoolihan, a hard-boiled professional cop, working in a sleazy American city and struggling to keep the demons of drink and despair at bay. A recovered alcoholic, Mike has seen it all, from drug wars to a dead baby in a picnic box. Big, tired, cynical, with a sad, soft heart, Mike is very much a stock creation - except for one thing: "In the bathroom I applied makeup. Like someone doing a chore. Wiping down a counter. With my mouth meanly clenched. I used to be something, I guess, but now I'm just another big blonde old broad."

In spite of all the signs to the contrary, Mike is a woman. And in Martin Amis's short new novel, Night Train, she is called upon to investigate the apparent suicide of a much younger, physically perfect woman, the daughter of her former boss, the police chief Colonel Tom. Jennifer Rockwell's naked body has been discovered in the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. The dead woman was an astrophysicist, her lover a professor of the philosophy of science; the suicide took place moments after he left the apartment and there is no evidence of a row or indeed any obvious reason why a lovely, successful woman - one who, unlike Mike, had everything - should have fired three shots into her own brain.

For Mike, who tells the story of the investigation in a jerky first- person narrative, it is "the worst case I ever handled." Her loyalties are torn between a cop's desire to smell out the truth and her urge to protect Jennifer's father, who saved her life and her career when she hit an alcohol-driven low some years back.

As she begins to discover clues in Jennifer's behaviour immediately before her death - an uncharacteristic lapse at work, the scribbled notes in a cheap paperback on suicide, the assignation to meet a boorish man she picked up in a bar - Mike is forced into an uncomfortable intimacy with the dead woman. The question which comes to haunt her, unspoken but powering the narrative as much as any imperative from Jennifer's father, is - what could have gone so catastrophically wrong with this perfect, all-American life?

Mike knows the wrecked landscape of her own history all too well: the booze, the disappointments, the violent men. Jennifer Rockwell and Colonel Tom have functioned for so many years as a kind of counterpoint to her personal darkness that the idea of Jennifer's suicide is peculiarly hard for Mike to bear. The stark question it poses is not so much about inner despair, skilfully concealed from friends and family until it becomes overwhelming, as the point of life itself. Mike's existence is predicated on a conviction of other possibilities, exemplified by the woman who has just exited the world in so dramatic a fashion.

This, I think, is why Mike has to be a woman when everything else about her - language, attitudes, a kind of gruff self-acceptance of her physical decline - suggests she is just the latest in a long line of male detectives married to their careers. Take away the cross-dressing element and the novel's ambitious philosophical structure promptly collapses. Of course Amis may intend something else here, such as asking a question about what happens to women who have been assimilated into male culture. "The jury is still out on women police," Mike observes at one point. "On whether they can take it. Or for how long."

Amis's treatment of this theme is, though, superficial - a word which could just as easily be applied to the novel as a whole. It gives the impression that he is simultaneously attracted by the conventions of the cop genre and disappointed in its flimsiness, which may account for the book's restless tone and the way in which it strains towards a significance which Amis never quite brings off. As for Mike, she is so transparently a device that her gender is one of the least interesting aspects of the novel. For all its occasional verve, Night Train reads and feels for the most part like a conscious literary exercise. Martin Amis in drag.

! 'Night Train' is published this week by Jonathan Cape, price pounds 10.99