Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis Review

Michael McGill is a burned-out private detective and self-described “shit magnet” who is enlisted by the White House Chief of Staff to retrieve the Constitution of the United States, not the one taught about in history class but the REAL Constitution. The one with invisible amendments held in secret and meant to be used in a time of moral crisis to return the country back to more traditional values.

warren ellis

The current presidency believes that time is now, but they have a problem. The book was lost 50 years ago and needs to be recovered. That’s where Max comes in and his search for the missing constitution will lead him across the country and deeper into the shadows of America on a job that “started out weird” and turned “scary”.

As far back as the Transmetropolitan series Ellis has worn his Hunter S. Thompson influence openly and on his sleeve. The main character from that series, gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem, was nothing short of a fully realized future descendant of the good Doctor. From the look, to the shared maniacal gleam in their eyes, to the varied and excessive drug use no one would dare deny the lineage between the two. In the series there were other links between Thompson’s and Ellis’ works that included visual references and direct placement.

With Crooked Little Vein he still maintains that Thompson connection in many ways. For example in 1985 Thompson wrote a column called Nixon and the Whale Woman that was later collected in Generation of Swine. In it Thompson wrote:

“In Rio Vista, a small riverside town about an hour’s drive east of San Francisco, I met an elderly Chinese woman who claimed to be the former mistress of Richard Nixon. She lived on a houseboat that was moored in a slough near Antioch, she said, and the ex-president had often visited her there when he came to California”

Early in the book when the Chief of Staff recounts for McGill the origins and history of the alternate constitution we find out the specifics of when and how it was lost.

“Lost in the 1950’s, in fact. Nixon traded it for the favors of a Chinese woman living on a houseboat in San Francisco bay.”

One of the prevailing themes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was the death of the 1960’s and the state of the American Dream. What’s explored in Crooked Little Vein is the idea that the American landscape is in the midst of a pole shift due in large part to the proliferation of the Internet. What’s voiced throughout the book is the notion that if those ideas/acts that once resided on the fringe now are readily accessible then the fringe is now the mainstream.

The groups engaging in these fringe practices (including but not limited to tantric ostrich sex and Godzilla bukakke) trade the book from one to another and this is the trail of clues that that McGill follows. The very book that could reset the national thought process acts as a totem for these groups. By controlling it they maintain an environment that is conducive for their actions. What’s partly on display here is an exploration of freedom in America and the warts and all approach to freedom that is its purist form. In an update of Voltaire’s often attributed quote I can honestly sit here and tell you that I will never inject a saline solution into my balls for any reason but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have the right to do so.

Ellis brings to this funhouse mirror exploration an outsiders view since he is not an American, but it is in these distorted images that a sharp satire emerges. What at first seems to be an exaggeration reveals itself to be much closer to reality then maybe we would sometimes like to admit. In the following example McGill is listening to a local radio station:

“We are the FCC” a loud voice proclaimed. “Take off your clothes and put on these orange jump suits on.”“The fuck?” said Herb Boy.“Pirate radio operations have been reclassified as Broadcast Terrorism. You’re going to be wearing dogs in your asses at Abu Ghraib for the next five years, you dirty bastards.”

This is community radio!”

If we wanted communities, we’d make Clear Channel pay us to run them. Put on the hoods, too. No more devil music for you, Radio Bin Laden.”

I switched off the radio, miserable, wondering if it was all my fault for listening and daring to enjoy it.

I got a little angry.

The center piece for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is what is now known as the wave speech. It acted as a summary and commentary of themes and the calm eye of the storm for that book. Crooked Little Vein has its own version of the wave speech that comes at about the halfway mark. While flying to Las Vegas McGill finds himself having a rather calm and lucid conversation with an indignant serial killer who, among other things, is upset at the way that the media is portraying him. Not only is this man presented as a voice of reason but he outlines one of the major themes of the book.

Thompson’s wave speech ends with the most memorable line and one of the most well written passages of the book.

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

As McGill’s makes his entrance into Vegas he hits the same exact point where the high water mark is almost visible, except that now, 35 years later, he sees something else. It too is one of the more memorable and better written passages in the book.

“From a distance, the Strip looked like it was covered in a dozen different colors of blossom on a wet spring morning.Up close, the blanket of petals turned out to be a thick coating of discarded handbills from pimps and porn operations, stuck to the road by rainfall.”

As the book winds down and McGill closes in on the constitution he realizes the amount of power that he now wields and he has to make a monumental decision. The end of the book is one that will have fans of Alfred Besters classic novel The Stars My Destination cheering as Ellis has McGill channel and then become a modern Gully Foyle.Crooked Little Vein displays the full spectrum of Warren Ellis’ imagination. As the story propels along at a machine guns pace he never loses sight of the central story arc.

Any one page contains multiple images and ideas that a lesser writer would have been tempted to focus on and develop into a bland inconsequentiality. But here, in their brevity, they retain their razor sharp focus as well as another layer of enjoyment.Not only will our protagonist stay in a Las Vegas hotel built in the shape of Christ the Redeemer dressed as Uncle Sam but we find dozens of other passages like these that make us smile, shake our head and almost wish they were developed further.

“Plus, I pistol-whipped a tailor once to gain the trust of a disturbed white boy who believed he contained the soul of Huey P. Newton.”
“Additional notation explained that a secret NASA memo released on the Internet in 1996 revealed that the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man was actually a CIA blind created specifically to cover a possible breach of security over astronauts with extensive bioelectronic modification escaping the system and going public.”

It should be noted that there is an overall pattern to the book that fans of Ellis will recognize. His protagonists tend to be intelligent, damaged people carrying some baggage. The protagonist always has a sexy (which doesn’t take away from her toughness) female assistant. Weird situations are explored and the cutting edge of technology is utilized. It is in this basic framework that Ellis constructs his fiction and is the style he has developed. But just because a style is recognizable does not mean that it is less enjoyable.I can’t recommend Crooked Little Vein enough.