Tuesday, April 10, 2007

HARD MAN by Allan Guthrie

Polygon Press, 2006. £9.99, ISBN: 9781846970047

Pearce, the Edinburgh hard-man who first appeared in Guthrie’s debut, Two Way Split, is living the quiet life in his dead mum’s flat. Just him, his three legged dog and no complications.

Until, that is, the Baxter family ask him to help their daughter, May. She’s sixteen, married to a violent bastard. And pregnant. The Baxter’s aren’t exactly lily-white themselves, but Wallace, their new in-law, is a real psychopath.

Pearce isn’t interested. Sure, the sob story would break any normal man’s heart, but all Pearce wants is to be left alone. And so he stays out of it. Until someone decides to make this personal. Until things get really… hard.

Guthrie’s third novel comes out roaring, with a black, almost surreal, vision of Edinburgh. His violent, stripped-down novels are enough to send traditional mystery fans scampering behind the sofa. But for all the violence and madness of his first two outings, it seems Guthrie has only been scraping the surface of his dark muse. Because Hard Man delivers on a potential that has so far only been hinted at. There’s a sense of velocity from the word go, and as the novel progresses, events move entirely out of control until the final third delivers a denouement that is as inspired as it is insane.

Throughout all of this, Guthrie barely pauses for breath. The set-up, sure, takes its time, but it’s a slow build only in comparison to the free-fall velocity that kicks in after the novel’s major turning point about two thirds of the way through. This is an author who doesn’t believe in wasting moments. Who tells us what we need to know and no more. Who doesn’t have us searching for the next exciting moment because we’re there already.

The pace of Hard Man reminds you of the sage words of Elmore Leonard: “leave out the part the reader’s tend to skip.”

Of course, if you come at it from the wrong direction, it could look paper thin. Everything is surface. There is no explicit reason given for Wallace’s insanity (which, by the end of the novel, has reached depths you never excepted) and Pearce’s relationship with his mother is only ever hinted at, never explored deeply (and why should it? There’s no need to know anything beyond the fact Perace was devoted to the old dear). Indeed, every time Pearce comes close to a maudlin thought, the narrative tosses the moment aside, shows it as superfluous. Perhaps this is a deliberate reaction to a propensity in crime fiction for certain authors to wallow in character-led introspection. Perhaps Pearce, for all his faults, is almost Buddha-like in his simple approach to life.

This is new wave noir, and for once we can fill in the details ourselves, because what rockets us along is the knowledge of characters in the here and now. They are here. They exist. Take them as they are or leave them. Fill in the details from implication not explanation.

Guthrie’s cast of oddball psychopaths often play like Scottish characters created by the Coen brothers. They’re insane, self-centred, contradictory and oddly real. Guthrie – like the Coens – has taken a harsh reality and moved it left of centre. There’s a sense of surreality here, and it works perfectly.

Because Hard Man is a tragi-comedy. Something that becomes cemented at the turning point which occurs maybe a third of the way through the novel.

But Guthrie never makes an explicit joke of any of the more surreal elements that propel his novel. For his characters – for Pearce, the Baxters and Wallace – there is nothing funny happening. And that serves to make the (exceedingly dark) comedy more genuine, arising as it does from the sheer natural lunacy of situation and characters.

And among all this, there is pain. Vicious, violent. Wrenchingly real. And undeniably effective.

The contrast between the pain and the humour highlights the reality of events for the characters. Guthrie’s people – no matter how exaggerated or insane – bleed, scream and cry like any human being. We are thrust into this pain, shown it from the point of view of those at its centre. We do not casually observe. We do not see it from the point of view of the perpetrators. We are thrown into the pain. We are there with Pearce when he winds up in a pitch-black basement (or is it hell?) his body bruised and battered after an encounter with Wallace.

All of these elements – and masturbating hamsters (which sounds ludicrous, but again fits neatly into the plot without being too much of a “look at me” moment) – combine to make Hard Man almost unique among modern crime novels.

Guthrie, along with Williams, Banks and Bruen, is traversing the traditional boundaries of British crime. Crafting books about “bad people doing bad things” and daring to write intriguing characters who are not necessarily sympathetic. For all the lunacy, there’s an honest grounding to his work that other, more “real” writers often miss as they strive to create brooding and morally upright worlds.

The direct approach of the narrative sometimes means that aspects such as motivation are hinted at rather than obliquely referenced, which will undoubtedly upset a certain portion of readers, but for those of us who like to fill in the blanks and who find exposition and bloat tedious in the extreme, Guthrie has given us a wonderful, darkly surreal noir novel. This is an author who, after three books, has found his voice near pitch perfect.

Hard Man is a dark, perfectly placed journey through psychoses, surreality and the twilight world of noir that is Guthrie’s twisted vision of Edinburgh. Combining the tougher elements of Kiss Her Goodbye with the more tragic-comic aspects of Two Way Split has allowed Guthrie to find a unique and decidedly twisted new approach to British crime writing. Guthrie’s third novel is not only his best, but his most confident outing yet. By turns laugh out loud funny and bone-crunchingly painful, this is one of those rare books that truly demands to be read.

Think you know hard?

You haven’t read Hard Man.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland.com, 11/04/07

Professional ethics disclaimer: The author knows Allan Guthrie in both a personal and professional regard. It is the second that warrants this disclaimer as undoubtedly some wag may use it to debunk the review and possibly the reviewer. As with every novel that comes to us at Crime Scene Scotland, we have composed the review without taking personal considerations regarding the author into account. In short, this is an unbiased review and the professional relationship is being revealed only in the interests of full disclosure.

Trust us: we’d have loved this book even if it was written by Jeffrey Archer.

Christ, we’d pay to see Jeffrey Archer try something like this…