Saline Testicular Enhancement and the Modern Detective Story: A Review of Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

This is a novel that will make you feel uncomfortable, at a conservative estimate, at least once in every ten pages. It might be a little squirm, a minor fidget, or a full-on scrotum (or other anatomically appropriate body part)-tightening wince that wracks your entire body. But make no mistake, Crooked Little Vein will make you react physically.

Delivered by well-known Internet Jesus and eponymous purveyor of graphic novels Warren Ellis, Crooked Little Vein is a kind of gonzo detective story. Our protagonist is former Pinkerton and current bottomed out private eye Mike McGill. It seems that ever since he left the corporate detective agency to go into private practice, Mike has been a lightning rod for the weird and perverted cases. While your average detective probably takes pictures of insurance fraud and Sam Spade deals with mysterious bird statues, Mike is the kind of detective who investigates a cheating husband and finds a tantric ostrich-sex cult. He’s a “shit magnet” which makes him the perfect choice to find the Other Constitution of the United States. Its a shady, mysterious document that the White House Chief of Staff needs Mike to find. Along the way, he picks up a sidekick/assistant/love interest/ sex researcher named Trix and the two of them set off on a cross-country road trip to track down the document, tracing a crooked little vein across the underside of American cultural geography.

The Constitution seems to have been held only by sexual deviants and depraved freaks. Mike and Trix meet at a Godzilla-themed bukkake porn theater and their relationship gets weirder from there. Its the perfect vehicle for Ellis to explore some of the darker, stranger aspects of twenty-first century culture which is really his playground. Crooked Little Vein is a slim volume, and you can burn through it pretty quick but that helps with the episodic nature of the quest. I found myself reading through one of Mike’s troubling encounters a night and saving the next for tomorrow. It was the most fucked up bedtime story I have ever subjected myself to. The worst part for me was a fairly detailed description of a process whereby one’s testicles are filled with warm saline and swelled to ridiculous proportions. Granted, I am something of a wuss when it comes to body modifications, but I had some trouble getting through that section of the novel. But I kept coming back for more.

Ellis is firmly in his element here and this is clearly a Warren Ellis book. While Crooked Little Vein is his first novel, he has written an impressive number of graphic novels and developed a characteristic style that tends to shine through no matter what he’s writing. His voice is so distinctive that it almost becomes a liability. Like Chuck Palahniuk or David Mamet, the authorial tone and stylistic tics mark the narrative. Whether his protagonists are superheroes, futuristic reporters, or shit-magnet PIs they all speak in the curmudgeonly shades of Ellis (and probably smoke cigarettes).

The story in Crooked Little Vein is new and distinctive enough to separate it from any of Ellis previous narratives but some of the things Mike sees and experiences wouldn’t be out of place in the far-out future of Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem. But what sets this novel apart is the little character touches that dance in and out of the narrative frame as Mike and Trix grow closer together. The plot plays like a grotesque road movie, and although there are no huge character-arc moments to explore the personalities of his characters there are just enough little touches of humanity to make us care about the horrible things they smell and eat.

For fans of Ellis’ its a no-brainer and if you count yourself in that camp you probably already own a copy. Otherwise, if you’ve got the stomach for it, this is worth your time. And if you don’t, then you probably never would have picked it up in the first place.

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