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NIGHT TRAIN. By Martin Amis . Harmony Books: 176 pp., $20

January 25, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is the author of the novel "A Guide for the Perplexed." He is a contributing writer to Book Review

For years, the language and tone of noir have been the targets of parodists from "Firesign Theater" and Garrison Keillor to the British Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's Bachelor Johnny Cool. ("Punk came up to me and said, 'Got a light, Mac?' 'No, but I go' a dark, brown overcoat.' ")

These days, there's a renaissance of noir going around, mixing not only comedy but psychology and deep thought into the black-and-white chess game. Echt noir, faux noir, double-knit knoir, Naugahyde noir with the feel of the real thing. And recently, with the publication of Richard Rayner's "Murder Book" and Martin Amis' "Night Train," there is Brit noir.

Brit noir is practiced by our cousins with a similar giggly fascination we Yanks bring to our study of Hamlet or Bertie Wooster. Character and drama become bit players, able to swell a progress, start a scene or two. It's language--the common puddle that separates Pico from Piccadilly--that takes center stage, tongue-lashing all who would challenge. It's no wonder, therefore, that Amis, who can out-clever any writer with his tongue behind his back, should be drawn to noir in its most gritty incarnation--the cop thriller.

"I am a police," Amis opens "Night Train." "That may sound like an unusual statement--or an unusual construction. But it's a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also."

And she is an orator, also. "Compared to what you guys give me to read," says her supervisor in Homicide, praising her reports, she's "goddamn Cicero versus Robespierre." Despite her tortured liver and equally scarred family history, Mike has enough of a heart and enough of a brain to make sense of the crime at the center of "Night Train."

Jennifer Rockwell has been found dead, a simple suicide. Closer examination finds that the suicide is not so simple--the gun in her mouth left three bullets in her head. Jennifer was the daughter of a Big Police, Col. Tom Rockwell. And a friend of Mike's. And a wonderful, sunny girl with a heck of a boyfriend. The more Mike probes, the more the suicide looks like murder. And because the suicidee is a young cosmologist with a body that could make Stephen Hawking get up and dance the Watusi, the motive for the crime expands out of Amis' Anytown, USA, into a cosmic space where even the matter and the holes are noir.

Before she "puts the case down," Mike is forced to plumb the depths not only of Jennifer's life but of her own. The "why" of the crime gives way to an investigation of what it means to even ask the question.

Amis is talking the big thoughts and writing the fast line, so why at the end does "Night Train" feel, like so many of Amis' books, so wonderfully entertaining and at the same time so maddeningly unsatisfying? At 176 pages, "Night Train" raises more expectations than a compact short story yet never gets up the speed of a good thriller. Even the existential musings of Mike and Jennifer's cosmogeeks never climb above the A-levels of the jejune Charles Highway of Amis' inspired first novel, "The Rachel Papers."

The true criminal is the Amis language, the virtuoso performer who won't yield the spotlight. Amis wants to play the Beckett game, the Thornton Wilder game, and have his Anytown stand for Everywhere. He wants his heroine Mike to be Dennis Franz and Katharine Hepburn at the same time. But his language, his perfect generic mixture of high culture and low, dime-store Dostoevsky and pulp Wittgenstein, is such a massive performer that it sucks up all character, light and matter, leaving us feeling black-holed.

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