Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hard Man

The best way to describe Allan Guthrie's new crime novel Hard Man (2006) is with one word: Ouch.

Guthrie fills his story with almost non-stop violence. Page after page and scene after scene, people are getting hurt. We see them punched, kicked, elbowed, kneed, and head-butted. They get their heads cracked against the floor, and they get their heads cracked against the wall. They get stabbed, with big knives and small, knives that are designed as weapons and knives that are designed for cooking. They get hit with hammers and shot with nails--and, of course, bullets.

That should, by all rights, make for a terrible book, troubling and wearing in equal parts. But it doesn't. Hard Man is a solid crime novel, dramatic and fun--even funny--because Guthrie creates distinctly odd and memorable characters, by turns grotesque and believable. And he has a flair for the short sentences and terse language of the crime novel; here's how the book opens, for example:
Another hot day in July. That was four in a row. Pretty good for Scotland.

Not so good for the corpse in the boot.

The orgy of violence Hard Man is set into motion by a father who decides that he and his two sons, bottom-feeding Edinburgh crooks, need to scare off his teenage daughter's estranged husband, who has been making vague but disturbing threats. Like many of the characters in Guthrie's three novels, they overestimate their own fighting skill--and, perhaps more important, their own toughness. See if you can find the flaws in the father's thinking here, as they wait for their young, strong, and violent prey to answer his door:
Jacob had glanced at his sons, nodded, then rang the doorbell. He slapped a wrench against his open palm while he waited for an answer. Oh, aye. They were all tooled up, they'd handle Wallace no problem, reputation or not. He was only one man against three, and those three were Baxters. Admittedly Jacob wasn't a huge threat by himself, cause, well, he was sixty-six years old and not as fleet of foot as he once was. Flash, to be fair, was even less of a threat: skinny, small--not to be cruel to his younger son, but the word Jacob was looking for was "weedy." Rog was a different story. Hard to believe those two boys had the same parents. Rog was a big lad, weighed over twenty stone, gripped that hammer proudly in his massive fist, and Jacob felt pretty safe standing next to him. Rog was a bouncer. He was used to this kind of thing. And the suit Rog insisted on wearing all the time worked in his favor. Aye, Rog meant business in more ways than one.

Jacob was sure Wallace would cower in front of their combined might.
You of course won't be surprised to learn that Wallace does no such thing; when you learn that Rog is actually a bartender rather than a bouncer, you won't be surprised that Wallace gives all three a solid beating.

So the men turn to Pearce, who was the main character in Guthrie's Two-Way Split (2004) and made a cameo in his Kiss Her Goodbye (2005) (both of which I've written about before. Pearce is the center of this book, too, the real reason, aside from the action, humor, and grotesquerie, to keep reading. Unlike the three Baxters, Pearce is the real thing, a true hard man--but he has reached a point in his life when he's pretty sure that's not what he wants to be. All his life, he's responded to problems with violence--a method that, in some ways, has worked for him. But in Two-Way Split we saw him, fiercely pressed physically and emotionally by circumstances, attempting to control his violence; his acts of kindness--even heroism--late in the book suggested that he might be able to find a way forward. As Hard Man opens, Pearce is living quietly by the seaside in Edinburgh, alone except for his newly adopted three-legged dog, and trying to figure out what he'll do once his small stash of money runs out.

So when the Baxters offer him the job of guarding the girl (with implied roughing-up-Wallace duties), he's not interested. Following their own bizarre logic, they decide to kidnap his dog, and the ploy works. Before long, Pearce has been sucked into the inimitably incompetent world of the Baxters, and he soon finds himself up against Wallace--who, it turns out, is a much scarier man than anyone thought, and possibly a much harder man than Pearce himself, because he seems to have little of the human left in him. Pearce fights Wallace, Wallace fights all the Baxters, and a lot of people get grievously wounded as the story rushes to a bloody climax.

Guthrie revels--I really think that's the only word that fits--in exploring what his characters do and think about once they've been injured: the Baxters, in particular, resemble characters in Kafka or silent cinema, always leaving one thing half-done as they rush off to try to do another that's suddenly occurred to them, racing around Edinburgh bloodied and broken and trying, with their pain-clouded brains, to figure out what to do next. He also clearly loves the slang of Edinburgh low-lifes, larding the conversations of his characters with unfamiliar terms. I didn't start making notes until midway through the book, but even so I picked up quite a few good ones: girning, cowped, fiky, plonker, horsetosser.

Hard Man would almost be worth reading just for the novelty of the slang; add in the odd characters and the still-compelling figure of Pearce, and you've got a strong crime novel. It can be excruciating, but it's also frequently so over-the-top as to be hilarious--I probably laughed guiltily about as often as I gasped in horror. That certainly doesn't make for a book you would lend to your mother-in-law--but what self-respecting crime novelist would want anything less?

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