Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1998
Night Train is a novel of mystery. The basic mystery concerns the death of Jennifer Rockwell: Her father, Tom Rockwell, a high-ranking police official, refuses to believe that Jennifer committed suicide. Rather than going through official channels, he calls on detective Mike Hoolihan. Although Hoolihan now works in the asset forfeiture division, Rockwell supervised her as her squad supervisor while she worked in homicide, and they remain friends.
More subtle mysteries surface in Martin Amis’s telling of the story. He deliberately refuses to identify where the story takes place, stating only that it is a “second-tier American city.” Although he is free in giving precinct numbers and street names, only someone familiar with the city—if it exists other than in Amis’s imagination—would be able to guess its identity. The year of the action is never stated, but the days and dates correspond to 1990, and that fits with other details. Through Jennifer Rockwell’s department chair and through her boyfriend, Trader Faulkner, Amis even touches on mysteries of the universe, how it formed and how long it will last. The characters themselves are also mysteries, and the story unfolds more as a revelation of their inner secrets than as a murder investigation. Through Hoolihan, who narrates the story through her journal, Amis doles out tidbits of the characters’ lives and motivations, always raising more questions than he answers. The novel ends with two large mysteries. Although Jennifer Rockwell’s case is considered closed, Hoolihan provides different answers to different people. Then there is the question of Hoolihan herself: After the soul-searching involved in this case, will she allow herself to slip back into a life of alcoholism and abuse?
Night Train is also a novel of imagery, with the strongest image being the night train itself. It is a real phenomenon, a noisy interruption of Hoolihan’s sleep in her low-rent apartment. Hoolihan owns a cassette tape with eight versions of the rhythm-and-blues song of the same name, but she shows her attachment to the image and its deeper meanings in less concrete ways. The night train is symbolic of the dark side of life and of death itself, and Hoolihan herself says that suicide is the night train. As Hoolihan finds out how Jennifer Rockwell came to board the night train, she reveals her own past in her journal—molestation by her father, a series of abusive boyfriends, and alcoholism that, although in abeyance, has left her with liver disease. As she probes the circumstances of Rockwell’s death—the death of a woman who seemingly had everything to live for—she questions the very meaning of existence.
Amis treads familiar territory here. Several of his previous works have explored the underclass and examined the emptiness of many lives. He is noted for his satirical treatments of human values. Although satire is absent in this novel, he again shows a character, Hoolihan, whose life deteriorated into alcoholism and who by her own admission was, before her rehabilitation, as likely to punch the next man at the bar as to take him to bed. She has reformed, but the danger of a lapse is ever present. Her life is contrasted with that of Jennifer Rockwell: a privileged childhood versus molestation by the father followed by foster homes; stunning natural beauty versus flat features and the dyed-blonde look of a politicized feminist; femininity versus a five-foot, ten-inch woman of 180 pounds engaged in the masculine world of police work (Hoolihan ponders her masculinity and femininity, and the psychology of a father who gives a boy’s name to a daughter he will later rape); and the intellectual work of an astrophysicist versus the morbid work of a homicide detective. In Success (1978), Amis similarly contrasted the aristocratic Gregory with his foster brother Terry, a physically unattractive resident of the slums with low self-esteem.
Amis’s previous novels show his literary development that led to Night Train. In Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), Amis turned away from his earlier satires, providing more philosophical depth. The protagonist suffers total amnesia and gradually discovers her identity. In a similar manner, Hoolihan seems to find herself as she delves into Jennifer Rockwell’s life. In Money: A Suicide Note, protagonist John Self is wealthy but uneducated and lacking in culture. He seeks culture but does not know how to get it and thus remains dissatisfied. Jennifer Rockwell, though cultured and educated, shows the strongest possible evidence of dissatisfaction with life through her apparent decision to end it.
Night Train is told through Hoolihan’s journal of the case. In the book’s opening, an introduction that precedes her journal, she states that this is her worst case. She considers it solved, and it is closed, but she acknowledges that the solution only points toward further complexity. On the night of April 2, nearly one month after the death of Jennifer Rockwell, she will meet with coroner Paulie No and ask him two questions, after which she will consider the case truly wrapped up, all the loose ends she has discovered firmly tied back down.
The narrative is crisp, as one would expect from a police detective. Far from being a statement of police procedure, however, it shows Hoolihan’s feelings about being involved in the case. She gets a call asking her to “ride a note,” or deliver a notification of death, that of Jennifer Rockwell. She does so as a favor to the squad supervisor, an old friend who knows her relationship with Tom and Miriam Rockwell and knows that she will appreciate that the news of their daughter’s death should come from a friend. Hoolihan has known Jennifer since Jennifer was eight years old, and Tom Rockwell was Hoolihan’s supervisor. In introducing him, Hoolihan states that he once saved her life. This is one of Amis’s small mysteries: Only later does Hoolihan reveal that Rockwell saved her life by taking her into his home while she withdrew from alcohol.
Before going to the Rockwells’ home, Hoolihan visits Jennifer Rockwell’s apartment. She says that police officers soon come to recognize a “yeah, right” suicide—one in which all the pieces fit—and that Jennifer’s definitely was not one of them. Although she tells Tom Rockwell that it seems that Jennifer took her own life, he does not believe her. Two days later, he tells Hoolihan that he believes that Jennifer was murdered by her boyfriend, Trader Faulkner, a philosopher of science at the same school where Jennifer worked as an astrophysicist. He asks her to investigate further and to bring him something he can live with, more of an explanation than the current police report.
Hoolihan’s investigation uncovers an array of evidence that vacillates between indications of suicide and murder. Although Jennifer’s landlady heard only one shot, the autopsy shows three bullet wounds. A computer search yields only seven cases in the last twenty years of suicides with three shots to the head, making suicide in Jennifer’s case a remote possibility. A young girl states that she saw an apparently angry Faulkner leaving Jennifer’s apartment on the evening of her death, swinging the scale toward murder. The toxicology report on Jennifer shows lithium, a drug taken by manic depressives, weighting the evidence more toward suicide. Hoolihan interrogates Faulkner, claiming evidence that she does not have and trying various tricks to force a confession. He does not yield, and she states that she never believed he committed the murder.
Ten days after Jennifer’s death, Hoolihan begins what she calls a psychological autopsy. She says that Jennifer is inside her, trying to reveal what Hoolihan does not want to see. Hoolihan has a long background in suicides, and she sees that Jennifer’s death does not match the typical profile. She looks at the remaining evidence of Jennifer’s life, struggling to find any motive for suicide. She discovers that Jennifer was perfectly healthy and that her doctor had no idea that she was on lithium. Reading Jennifer’s datebook, she sees no entries past March 2 except a notation of “AD” on March 23. Arnold Debs calls Hoolihan—apparently having gotten Hoolihan’s number from Jennifer—and Hoolihan confirms Jennifer’s date with him. She keeps the date herself and finds out that Debs had seen Jennifer only once before, on February 28. Bax Denziger, Jennifer’s department chair, reveals that Jennifer had spoken with him recently about death. She also had recently changed some data, ruining about a month’s worth of work. In Jennifer’s apartment, Hoolihan finds a book about suicide, but rather than being a “how-to,” it concerns clinics and self-help.
Faulkner reveals more about Jennifer’s state of mind. She had begun buying what he calls “bad art,” with checks postdated to April 1. She had also sent him a suicide note, by mail. He gives the note to Hoolihan for her to read. In it, Jennifer admits to having been on mood stabilizers, obtained illicitly, and says she is afraid she will do something inhuman. She suggests strongly that she has been suffering from mood disorders for months, but Hoolihan does not see that as fitting with the rest of her behavior.
Hoolihan discovers that, the week before she died, Jennifer visited Phyllida Trounce, a friend and roommate from college who is a manic depressive. At this point, the pieces fall together for Hoolihan. She asks Trounce to count her pills and finds that she is missing six of them.
The novel then returns to its beginning. Hoolihan meets with Paulie No to ask him the questions alluded to in the introduction—though, as is typical in this novel, the questions themselves are not clearly stated. No confirms that his autopsy showed no evidence of long-term lithium use and that he had not seen the toxicology report showing lithium in her system.
No’s statement leaves Hoolihan with many loose ends: how Arnold Debs fit into Jennifer’s life; why she had taken lithium, but apparently only six pills; her suicide note claiming mood disorders; her purchase of paintings with postdated checks; and her falsification of data at work. To herself, she concludes that Jennifer suffered from the Paradise Syndrome, in which successful people create worries for themselves. She believes that Jennifer deliberately planted all the clues pointing to reasons for her suicide, perhaps as solace for her parents, when in fact no reasons existed. She wonders whether she can tell Tom Rockwell that the only reason for Jennifer’s death was that she had high standards that no one could meet; instead, she relates the string of leads as if they were real.
In the brief conclusion to her journal, Hoolihan says that she is headed off to “the Battery” and its long string of dives. She wants to call Faulkner to say goodbye, but her boyfriend is coming up the stairs, and the night train is coming. She and Amis leave it unclear as to just how far she will ride it.
In the increasingly populated world of novels about female detectives, it is difficult for a book to stand out, but Night Train does. Tough, hard-drinking women no longer are a rarity in fiction, but Amis transcends the recently developed stereotypes by showing Mike Hoolihan as a rounded character, shaped by her past but fighting for her own identity. Night Train can be maddening with its ever-widening circle of questions, but these are what give the book its depth and character. Readers will leave this book troubled and intrigued, and likely asking questions of themselves.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXXI, February, 1998, p. 100.
The Economist. CCCXLIV, October 4, 1997, p. 90.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 25, 1998, p. 5.
National Review. L, March 9, 1998, p. 64.
The New Republic. CCXVIII, March 16, 1998, p. 32.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 1, 1998 p. 6.
The New Yorker. LXXIV, February 16, 1998, p. 80.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 27, 1998, p. 50.
Time. CLI, February 16, 1998, p. 100.
The Wall Street Journal. January 29, 1998, p. A16.