Her master's voice

As an American policewoman, Martin Amis still sounds like Martin Amis. And that's what we want

Night Train

by Martin Amis Jonathan Cape. pounds 10.99

is, so to speak, a nominal title. It's really The New Amis. The new McEwan, the new Byatt, the new Barnes: they're just books to be read or not read according to your taste. The New Amis, though, is not just an exciting prospect but an event to be reckoned with - even if you didn't read it.

The old New Amis, The Information, took this to extremes, the text itself becoming a postscript to the overwhelming experience of its publication. Everyone wanted to know what it was like. Nobody really cared to find out because everybody already knew all about it. There was no mystery. There was too much information.

The new New Amis is all mystery. It's an American noir, narrated by Detective Hoolihan - a woman - who's investigating an apparently blatant suicide. The suicidee is Jennifer Rockwell, beautiful daughter of the Chief of Police, who leans on Hoolihan to somehow change - cides from "sui-" to homi-". The fact that Jennifer has three bullets in her head certainly lends credence to such a possibility.

That's enough plot. No one reads Chandler for the plots - Chandler didn't write Chandlers for the plots - and certainly no one reads Amis for the plot. The genre's allure is stylistic. is set in a city of words, a textual city. Whitman Avenue, Yeats's Bar... That the book is to be largely an investigation of rhetoric is announced in the opening pages. "Compared to what you guys give me to read," says one of Hoolihan's superiors about her reports, "this is fucking oratory". Amis had mastered "the most exalted villainspeak" - as he puts it in The Information - several times over; this time he was going to have a bash at American copspeak. Which he does brilliantly, naturally. Among other things, is a virtuoso display of night-stick poetry and cop oratory. There are nice soft-boiled touches, too: the house on "a slow drip" after a downpour ("Drip, drop, said the rain").

If, on occasions, we think that Hoolihan sounds a bit too like a man, Amis wipes away his prints by having other characters mistake her for a man also. Especially on the phone: everyone thinks she sounds like a man. Specifically, her voice is like her creator's, her liver like John Self's: "If I bought a new liver, I'd just trash that one, too." It's not about doing the police in different voices, then, but about doing them in the same voice, the Amis voice.

In this sense, Amis is a genuine star as opposed to a very successful writer. The main attraction of seeing De Niro act in recent years has not been to see him play a character but to see him doing his De Niro riff. It's quite a riff by now.

Some of Amis's verbal chord sequences are, as he has remarked of Rolling Stones favourites, already embossed on the senses: "when a pair of slobs shack up together you don't get slob times two - you get slob squared. You get slob cubed." But there are other kinds of Amisisms, recognisable less by syntactical familiarity than by stunning imaginative conceit. "Take away the bodies, and the autopsy room is like the kitchen of a restaurant that has yet to open."

As expected, there is much to astonish and admire here. The ongoing investigation of Amis's career, after all, has been the search for a form which facilitates the maximum concentration of Amisisms. It was not long ago that Q & As with Amis concentrated entirely on his ability to mint phrases like "rug re-think" and "sock". Then, somewhere along the line, his stylistic signature imperceptibly acquired the weight and substance of a world-view. No, a universe-view.

The thermo-nuclear jag in Einstein's Monsters marked the beginning of a fascination with astronomy and astrophysics. Here, too, there's plenty of "Dark Matter", a phrase which, in its non-technical usage, alerts us to a deeper continuity stretching back to Other People in 1982. According to her egghead boss, Jennifer's work as a theoretical physicist offered her a glimpse of a universe so vast as to bring us to the brink of a "revolution in consciousness".

Such a revolution, he concedes, would not be without casualties. If Jennifer did commit suicide, was she impelled to do so by her awareness of "just how fragile and isolated our situation really is?" Though later disavowed, this idea forms a vast backdrop - or blackdrop, rather - to Hoolihan's investigation.

Novelists are under no compulsion to think through the ideas behind their work. But if is to be an investigation of a condition rather than of a freak incident - remember how much store Amis set by the idea of the Universal in The Information? - then the value of the ideas it dramatises needs to be examined. So let's compare the egghead's hard-boiled suggestion that "human beings are not sufficiently evolved to understand the place they're living in", or that "we live on a planet of retards", with something similarly thought-provocative. Suppose, writes John Berger, that all the utopian dreams of the past will come to nothing, that the condition of the world will always be closer to hell than to heaven. What difference would it make to our actions? The answer: none. "All that would have changed would be the enormity of our hopes and finally the bitterness of our disappointments."

In comparison with this plodding determination, the millennial hysterics of London Fields and the astro-babble of The Information seem simultaneously spectacular and derisory. In , too, it is difficult to shake off the impression of someone bedazzled by astronomically big numbers - all those billions of light years! - in the way that Keith Talent was carried away by the idea of Boadicea playing darts in AD 61 ("AD 61! thought Keith"). Not for the first time, there is an electric tension between Amis's massive incidental intelligence and matchless linguistic power, and the relative banality of his thought; between what he starts out with in each book and where he ends up.

Like the three big novels - Money, London Fields, The Information - comes apart towards the end. It dissolves. The only one of his books that ends well is Time's Arrow, which ends with the beginning (and Amis is far better at beginnings than he is bad at endings). So we wait for the next New Amis, for a book which it would be unreasonable to expect from anyone else: one that keeps beginning right up until the last page.

Amis in American a taste of 's first chapter

In police work you soon get to be familiar with what we call the "yeah, right" suicide. Where you go in the door, see the body, look around the room and say "Yeah, right."

This was definitely not a yeah-right suicide. I have known Jennifer Rockwell since she was eight years old. She was a favorite of mine. But she was also a favorite of everybody else's. And I watched her grow into a kind of embarrassment of perfection. Brilliant, beautiful. Yeah, I'm thinking: To-die-for brilliant. Drop-dead beautiful. And not intimidating - or only as intimidating as the brilliant- beautiful can't help being, no matter how accessible they seem. She had it all and she had it all, and then she had some more. Her dad's a cop. Her considerably older brothers are cops - both with the Chicago PD, Area Six. Jennifer was not a cop. She was an astrophysicist, here at Mount Lee. Guys? She combed them out of her hair, and played the field at CSU. But for the last - Christ, I don't know - seven or eight years, it must be, she was shacked up with another bigbrain and dreamboat: Trader. Professor Trader Faulkner. This was definitely not a yeah-right suicide. This was a no-wrong suicide.

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