In comics and prose, Warren Ellis excels at the procedural—Transmetropolitan followed Spider Jerusalem’s (admittedly often unorthodox) journalism, Planetary followed the exploits of superpowered investigators of the strange, and his previous novels, Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine, were detective/police procedurals. In the novella Dead Pig Collector (excerpt here), he approaches the business of murder and body disposal from the other side of the law, in what might be called a criminal procedural and which Ellis himself describes as “a love story about the efficient disposal of corpses. Sort of.”
Mister Sun is an unusual sort of hitman, and a very up-to-date one. He times himself in seconds, he takes advantage of a Snapchat-like instant messaging application to coordinate with his clients, and his specialty is not simply neat and efficient murder, but equally tidy disposal of the body afterward. In a clear indicator of his carefully-managed emotional distance from his job, he calls himself a “dead pig collector,” after “people who have learned how to effectively and safely dispose of swine carcasses” when pollution and disease lay waste to Chinese pig farms. A routine job in Los Angeles goes off-course at the unexpected discovery that he must clean up his latest client’s corpse instead of eliminating the original target—and it turns out that the erstwhile target, Amanda, is a woman with a strong constitution and an engineer’s interest in learning how things work. Including Mister Sun’s particular unique skill set, which involves a hammer, a lot of plastic sheeting, bleach, and a chef’s blowtorch, just for starters.
Obviously, readers with a low tolerance for gore should turn back now. But apart from being an accomplished piece of body horror rendered in sharp and darkly funny prose, Dead Pig Collector is laced with quick and trenchant observations on this particular odd moment of the twenty-first century: Mister Sun’s jaundiced observations of LA—“a fallen constellation, resting on a rickety scaffold of endless, maddening road”; peculiar pieces of technology like a Chinese cellphone with a built-in cigarette lighter; “human pens for software writing” where a woman feels like she has to wear “a Junior Anti-Sex League chastity sack” to keep from being bothered by male coworkers “with nothing but pumps for hearts.”
It’s a clinical, spare, economical story about dismemberment and contemporary alienation, seen through the eyes of a pair of characters who can calmly talk about how “monetizing software, especially software with a social purpose, is disgusting” while Mister Sun carefully removes his late client’s arm to make it easier to transport the remains. Ellis makes it perfectly, resoundingly clear that while anyone can find the instructions to get rid of a corpse (he claims to have found all the information he needed in about “four or five hours” on the internet), it really takes a certain kind of person who can actually do it. Mister Sun is clearly possessed of some kind of psychopathology that allows him to go about his work so cold-bloodedly, and Amanda seems have some kind of atypical neurology—at one point she admits that she has “a hard time telling when people are lying to me”.
But the fact is, the two of them are oddly well-matched, and by the end, Ellis makes you wish that these two crazy kids could actually make things work out between them. It helps that clearly nothing of value was lost when Mister Sun’s original client was removed from the equation, but there’s an appeal in the fact that Amanda and Mister Sun care about something that isn’t simply about turning a profit; they have their own idiosyncratic devotion to doing a job and doing it well. They inhabit a strange, empty world where human contact is a commodity, and where any service, however repulsive, can be bought for a price. Their connection, however fleeting and ill-fated, turns a story centering on the dismantling of a body into something unexpectedly touching.