As a reviewer, once in a while I dream at night that I am on the witness stand and somebody is asking ‘Are you NOW or have you ever BEEN a member of the trashing-second-novels club!?’
It’s true, many writers knock it out of the ballpark on their second try, and as a result everyone’s patience is sorely tested. To avoid all this, Guthrie was judicious enough to make KISS HER GOODBYE yet another altogether extraordinary, lullaby-free Noir Classic. Again the total absence of all the word ‘mercy’ could possibly hold is a creepy stimulant in this book. As a payoff we get raw prose, hard-nosed dialogs and an overall post-human feeling just to prove the author’s staying power in dark territory.
Like TWO-WAY SPLIT, KISS HER GOODBYE is set in the grim part of Edinburgh, where entropy rules and displaced evildoer run rampant. The reader is kept in a state of nervous imbalance: literally everybody appears more ore less wrecked in this underworld atmosphere, and street shrewdness does not help much to prevent bad stuff from happening.
The daring of this second novel is that it slows the breakneck pace of the debut, if only just a fraction. In parallel, the story enlarges the scope of visible and invisible injuries of its battered protagonists. Guthrie gets away with it by filtering big time desaster through bits of his central figures’ past. Which makes the general idea of human goodness look as badly here as any made-up, faraway cardboard kingdom.
Throughout the book, the narrative remains tight and resists to linger – no image is held too long, nothing is overstated to clog the action. Much like in TWO-WAY SPLIT, KISS HER GOODBYE doesn’t stress, but rather hints at the meaning of a dehumanized environment: the main characters aren’t aware of a moral choice anymore, and restrained energies can only be released in nastiness.
Again it catches the soul how Guthrie uses fast cutting, how he plays with brutality in an impersonal, intellectual way: the violence in his prose has a look, a fascination.
Accordingly, all carefree thoughts get cleared out of the reader’s head as main character Joe Hope, a local loan shark’s dogsbody, faces maximum trouble. Hope has let assignments take over from the person: uptight, in a terrible mental state, as tense as a spring and sexually twisted, he comes across as a confused torturer, as an odd kind of small-time criminal robot, more angry than alive, and helpless in his struggle for contol. Hoodlumism appears to be just one of his strait jackets.
In contrast, Hope’s boss Cooper displays a cocky attitude to release tension, but also to gain some fake kind of breathing space (‘Fucking patience is a fucking virtue, Joe’). This money lender’s every turn glistens with the possibility of terror on the brink of sadism.
Joe’s the numb robot, the at once itchy and frozen madman supposed to do the dirty work in case a debtor defaults on a loan, but it’s usually Cooper who jumps alive like an evil monster, and wields a baseball bat to defile all ethics. Guthrie carefully estranges the reader from each of his protagonists – another fine trick to enhance the degree of Noir.
When Joe learns that his only daughter Gemma, who lived in the Orkneys as an aspiring young writer, has died, an ugly blend of grief, rage and sense of failure takes a new turn. The clumsy way Hope tries to turn out his agony on his wife Ruth triggers a haunting case of spousal abuse. The near to perfect dialog captures not only the sickening way Ruth parrots her husband’s vile demeanor, it also flings one of those tired adult silences at the reader – when neither of a couple has the guts to speak first, not wanting to talk about getting too drunk, not wanting to be close to someone who can be read in a second, someone who used to be another person, right?
Since Adam Wright, a distant relative in the Orkneys, was supposed to keep Gemma safe, Hope has another target of vengeance, and a sudden travel destination. But the pull of Guthrie’s strings aims differently: Ruth gets murdered, and found in the trunk of Joe’s car, thus it’s him getting convicted for this crime. A young lawyer who hasn’t fallen prey to cynicism yet, a down-to-earth, unblinkingly loyal hooker named Tina, and a blighted DS do their bit in the plot’s flip, twisted craziness and its only seemingly calmed showdown, featuring unlikely allies.
KISS HER GOODBYE never undercuts its excellent dialog. Some of it is as charming as rotting leaves in gutters. If you’ve never read a book by this author before, you may not quite know what hit you, and what nags at the mind long after reading.