Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

By Warren Ellis. HarperCollins Canada, 288 pp, $27.95, hardcover

Warren Ellis moves deftly from the pages of comics with his debut novel, Crooked Little Vein, a pulpish detective story inspired by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The high-concept plot–Michael McGill, a private eye scraping the bottom, is hired to find the secret real Constitution of the United States–riffs on The Big Sleep and makes explicit references to The Maltese Falcon.

Known only to the U.S. government elite, the secret constitution (with the power to control the masses) was lost by Nixon in a poker game. The unnamed, heroin-addicted chief of staff to the current president is convinced the document is the reason the U.S. has been in decline since the '50s. He's selected McGill to find the document because the private dick is "a human shit-tick, swimming through the toilet bowl of America".

This setup is vintage Ellis, his On the Road. It moves from New York to Ohio to Texas to Nevada, and ends in California, and it's a tribute to America that only he could conceive. It gives him licence to skewer the country's backward politics, its citizens' appetite for excess, and the bizarre juxtaposition of ultraconservative values with hedonistic behaviour that is the hypocrisy of the Moral Majority.

Ellis has a faithful, passionate, and powerful distrust of any established system, themes he explored in his comic series Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency, and The Authority. The character of McGill shares a sensibility with Spider Jerusalem–the iconic, caustic investigative journalist in Transmet–and Ellis has given his supporting characters a variety of fringe fetishes, many of them sexual.

Elements of Crooked Little Vein–details of environments, in particular–almost seem like they've been lifted from the pages of a comic, but the book is not simply a graphic novel without pictures. It's a fully formed, perfectly paced story with all the right parts.