Night Train – Martin Amis

The Devil and the Clear Blue Sky

Night Train, a novella about female detective Mike Hoolihan’s experience of the death of the beautiful Jennifer Rockwell, is primarily concerned with the elusiveness of happiness. It is cathartic in the depth of its despair, and a return to the real world after reading it bringing an intense sense of relief. Ultimately, I found the darkness of the novella to be gripping rather than off-puttting, despite how graphic some sections were, and found it’s contemplations on life, death and happiness to be fresh and thought-provoking rather than trite.

The most obvious candidate for the central image of the novella is the titular Night Train. However, of far more significance is the image of “clear blue sky” out of which Jennifer “falls burning”: “A white sky giving way to pixels of blue, and containing both sun and moon, which she knew all about.” This contrasts with Mike’s smoky world of obsessive suspicion: “I am turning the interrogation room into a gas chamber… That’s sometimes all you’re left with in here: The full ashtray.” Jennifer’s career as an astrophysicist relies on the clarity of the sky in order to obtain a ‘seeing’ of the heavens. In contrast, the ‘seeing’ of Mike’s career, after which the third section of the work is titled, precisely involves seeing through the smoke and obfuscation which surround a murder or suicide. The message is ultimately a pessimistic one. Life in Jennifer’s world of clarity, is only setting oneself up for a fall. This does not mean that life in Mike’s world leads to any kinder fate.

Jennifer is an angelic figure, bringing clarity and order to those around her, to such an extent that that she is more a symbol than a character. Amis returns time and again to the scene of her watching over Mike as she recovers from her alcoholism. Ultimately, however, this makes her the greatest source of despair in the work: “She hurt the living, and that’s another reason to hate her.” After her death, Jennifer’s long-term boyfriend Trader takes up his smoking habit again, falling back into the dark world which Mike inhabits. The orderliness of their shared flat begins to disintegrate also. Her fall has a far more profound effect on Mike herself.

It is Mike’s story which truly makes the work feel worthwhile. The true purpose of Jennifer as a symbol is to help to reveal Mike as a character. One of her most interesting characteristics is her constant, almost obsessive, suspicion. Her investigation takes her on a tour of all of Jennifer’s acquaintances, and there is hardly a man amongst them who is not suspected of sleeping with Jennifer. These momentary flashes of suspicion have an almost Tourettes-like quality to them, as if Mike cannot help but think the worst of each person she meets.

Perhaps disappointingly, Mike is the only character of real note in the novella. However, it is a work packed with eye-catching language and imagery, the dark tone is consistent and gripping without being overpowering, and Mike’s character is well worth the read.


  1. charc902 · October 28, 2014

    Great review sounds like a book for me. I enjoy the darkness in story. May just have to check this book out! thanks!


    • papermanreviews · November 30, 2014

      It’s well worth a read, do check it out! Glad you liked the review.


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