Saturday, August 12, 2006

Kiss Her Goodbye, one more time

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I like about this medium is that it enables me to revisit my opinions about books if I feel like I haven’t quite conveyed what I meant, or if I’ve changed my mind about a book through further thinking about it or through conversations with friends or commentators. And that’s what I’m doing today.

A week ago, I wrote a post comparing the leg-breaker protagonist of Allan Guthrie’s Kiss Her Goodbye (2005) and the hit-man protagonist of Max Allan Collins’s The Last Quarry (2006). As part of that comparison, I wrote,
I want to know why Allan Guthrie chose to make Joe a leg-breaker; Kiss Her Goodbye could have been written, with essentially the same plot, with Joe as a burglar, or a safecracker, or any sort of petty criminal. So what does the leg-breaking add other than another level of seaminess and violence to a story that could have had plenty of both without it? I finished the book still a little unsure.

Well, this being the Internet, sometimes you get an answer. This morning, Allan Guthrie himself commented:
In answer to your question, I decided to make Joe a 'legbreaker' because the entire book is about a violent man trying not to be violent in the face of extreme provocation. If he was a safecracker, the whole point of the book would have been missed. It wouldn't have interested me. Violence interests me. The psychology of the hard man is what I wanted to explore here. As for Joe's lack of qualms: he has qualms aplenty--he holds Cooper back in that opening scene you mention, he's terrified of Park, he's sexually dysfunctional, he's a borderline alcoholic (as you mentioned)--maybe I didn't state it overtly enough, but it's all connected to the job.

Nothing like a word straight from the source to send you back to the book. He’s right about the opening scene—I described Joe as having few qualms as he and his friend/boss Cooper beat a guy with a baseball bat. What had stayed with me from that scene was the visceral impact of the violence, but I’d forgotten that Joe does at least attempt to restrain Cooper:
“We’re going to kill you now, you little tosser.”

“That isn’t necessary.” Joe put his hand on Cooper’s elbow.

Billy was sobbing. He started screaming again.

Cooper said, “Two minutes at most.”

“He’s got the message.”

Cooper shook Joe’s hand off and took a swing. Something crunched when the bat hit Billy’s face and Billy stopped screaming. Cooper said, “Now he’s got the message.”

Joe’s restraint is subtle, in comparison to the violence surrounding it, but it’s definitely there. And Guthrie will get no argument from me about Joe’s overall dysfunction. I traced his alcoholism and sexual problems to his desperately unhappy marriage, but I can accept that the wrecked marriage itself is just another component (and result of) of his overall self-destructive impulses, fueled by frustration and anger about the violence of his job—and his nature.

That violent nature, Allan Guthrie argues, is what he was interested in all along in writing this book. Because I was looking at Kiss Her Goodbye in conjunction with The Last Quarry, I was thinking about both protagonists in terms of plot first—did they need to have the jobs they had order for the plot to function? Guthrie’s saying that instead I should look at it in terms of character: sure, you could have a book with similar plot mechanics whose central character was a safe-cracker, but it would be an essentially different book, and one that he wouldn’t be interested in writing. He’s interested in Joe himself and how the person he is drives the events of the book; if they’re to have any meaning, the man and the plot are inseparable.

When I look at Kiss Her Goodbye from that angle, I see what he’s getting at: the essence of Joe (and his problems) is the violence inherent in him and his job, and that’s what drives both the action and his relations with the other characters. I still think the book isn’t entirely successful, but, as I said in my original post, Guthrie’s aiming high. He’s written a book more emotionally and psychologically complex than Collins’s The Last Quarry; the fact that I prefer the Collins says at least as much about me and my taste in crime novels as about the books themselves.

This revisiting also serves as a reminder that I frequently latch onto one way of thinking about a book and have to be jarred or pushed into looking at it from another angle. It’s one reason I like talking with people about books—and writing this blog, which in itself forces me to think and rethink, if only to achieve a coherent explanation of my opinions.

So thanks for the comment, Allan; I appreciate you taking the time to explain. And this gives me a chance to mention something that I left out of my original post, because it didn’t really fit anywhere: for all my questions about Kiss Her Goodbye, I did like it enough to go looking for Allan Guthrie’s other novel, Two-Way Split. It’s coming out in paperback in the United States in October (with a really sharp cover design), so I’m sure you’ll all hear more about it then.

1 comment:

  1. As interesting as Guthrie's response is to your post, it would be many million times more interesting if he had died a century ago, and was using the Internet to communicate with you from beyond the grave. Surely Conan Doyle has something to tell you about the Klinger annotations, but is frustrated by unfamiliar techhnology.