Monday, August 07, 2006

Two jobs

Quarry, the protagonist of Max Allan Collins’s The Last Quarry (2006) is a retired contract killer. The protagonist of Allan Guthrie’s Kiss Her Goodbye (2005), Joe Hope, is a leg-breaker for a loan shark. Neither job is one you’d want to tell your mom about. And if you were, say, Saint Peter, you’d probably put the contract killer at least a few places in line behind the leg-breaker, right? Yet while I enjoyed The Last Quarry despite Quarry’s profession, while reading Kiss Her Goodbye I couldn’t get around the problem of Hope’s job. I’m not sure there’s a defensible explanation; hell, I’m not entirely sure of the explanation at all. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the end of this post.

Kiss Her Goodbye is by no means a bad novel: in telling the story of the suicide of Joe’s daughter and the death of his wife it paints a detailed picture of the seamy side of Edinburgh, and Guthrie’s created some memorable characters (particularly good is a young lawyer who is drawn to the dangers of Joe’s life). But then there’s the leg-breaking. Joe explains how he got into being an enforcer, recruited by his best friend when he was about to become a father and his job prospects were poor. Now he’s a borderline alcoholic in a deeply troubled marriage, desperately unhappy with life—but I didn’t get the sense that his relationship to his job itself was as complicated as I’d have liked. The opening scene features him and his friend messing a guy up with baseball bats, and he seems to have few qualms as they inflict tremendous pain on the man.

Given that Joe’s job is to seriously hurt people, I’d like a little more complexity, and at least as much inner turmoil related to his job as to his marriage. 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.

I probably wouldn’t have thought about this at all had I not soon after read and enjoyed The Last Quarry. Collins has written before about Quarry, though this is the first I’ve read, and this novel finds him recently retired and managing a small resort somewhere in Minnesota. A chance encounter in a deserted convenience store leads him to a contract to kill a young woman in Colorado, a job that quickly begins to get under Quarry’s skin—via, of course, his heart.

This all ought to be at least as unacceptable as Joe Hope’s leg-breaking. But Quarry operates with a degree of open introspection that in Joe Hope is submerged by anger and self-pity, and while Quarry’s potted defense of his occupation (essentially, the “if I get hired to kill you, you’ve probably done something to deserve it” defense) is unconvincing, he clearly operates according to a code. It’s a code that would, I think, hold leg-breakers like Joe in low esteem. In addition, his role as a hit man is essential to the book; it’s what drives the entire plot.

Is all that sufficient to make the difference, to justify my enjoying Quarry while judging Joe? Well, no. Not if I’m making a strict argument about ethics, and not even if I’m limiting the discussion to fiction, where one of our most important jobs as readers is to make judgments about the characters we’re being shown, their decisions and actions.

But Quarry is a convincing character and good company—funny, self-effacing, and cynical, with a skilled barroom raconteur’s narrative style—and that carried the day. It enabled me to concentrate not on what he did for a living, but on what he was attempting to do now that emotion had made his job more complex.

That’s where these books’ role as entertainment takes over: an affable hit man is flat-out more fun than a dour leg-breaker. Allan Guthrie may be aiming higher—trying to show us some real darkness—but Collins’s touch is more sure, and The Last Quarry ends up a better read.

But I do have one request for Collins: please, please, please never describe a man’s penis as a “blade of flesh” ever again. Please. I have to go cleanse my mind now.


  1. Something in your juxtaposition of the two protagonists reminds me of what I enjoy so much in the Patricia Highsmith that I've read: not just the gulf between the characters' low behavior and high self-regard, but the irony she develops over the course of a story in revealing that gulf. In The Talented Mr. Ripley in particular, she had a way of slipping in the most damning details in an offhand way, post facto, or in the briefest snatch of dialog, that was creepy and unnerving, even though it only happened four or five times in the whole novel.

    I also enjoy stories most when the characters or the storytellers are what I like to call "good company." Highsmith made a career out of being creepy, unnerving, and beguiling company, which, I have got to admit, took a lot of talent.

  2. Hi Levi,

    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 alchoholic (as you mentioned) -- maybe I didn't state it overtly enough, but it's all connected to the job.

    All best,

    Al Guthrie

  3. Allan,
    Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate your taking the time to explain.

    I've responded to your comment here, in case you're interested.