Hard Case Crime has always featured first-time publications alongside the reprints and discovered “lost” novels in its catalogue, and with few exceptions the new novels have been packaged with cover art to look like vintage crime paperbacks. That is certainly the case with Allan Guthrie’s 2005 Kiss Her Goodbye: the yellow backdrop of the Chuck Pyle cover looks like something out of the 1940s or 1950s.
The content of KHG is straight out of the golden era of hardboiled fiction, too. Joe Hope is the enforcer for Cooper, an Edinburgh loan shark. Although he doesn’t kill anybody, he frequently beats them bloody and broken, using a wooden baseball bat. As in the case that begins the story, Cooper often accompanies Joe in these jobs when a debt is overdue, motivated as much for pleasure as for business.
Cooper was a loan shark. Joe worked for him.
First rule of debt collecting: If you want to improve the odds on your client being at home, visit him at night when he ought to be curled up in bed, asleep. Second rule: always carry a weapon.
On the surface, Joe’s existence looks simple and under control. His job is not difficult and he seems to understand the discipline needed for it. He is also well-read and more than capable of the intellectual demands of operating outside of the law. However, his personal life is inextricably tied in with Cooper, who employed him after he dropped out of college. For instance, following the initial scene where they give a delinquent a beating, they visit the local brothel and finish off the night watching horse racing.
Joe has a wife and daughter, but is estranged from both of them – his spouse Ruth cannot stand Joe’s presence but knows Cooper very well, as did the daughter Gem. The principal story starts with Ruth telling Joe that Gemma, who had been staying with her cousin Adam on the Orkney Islands, was found dead from a drug overdose. Joe refuses to accept the possibility of suicide, but both Ruth and Cooper seem to have a better understanding of Gemma’s emotional issues.
The implicit responsibility of Gemma’s death seems too much for her parents to handle — Ruth drinks heavily and blames Joe, and Joe storms out of the apartment with every intention of punishing Adam (whom he held responsible for “taking care” of his adult daughter). Once he gets to the village in the Orkneys, he hires a local cab:
The driver nodded. A jerky, clockwork nod. “Girl died there the other day. At Adam’s place. Terrible tragedy. Killed herself.”
Joe didn’t respond.
“The little girl was called Gemma. She was nineteen.”
The driver’s eyes stared at Joe’s reflection in the rearview mirror, no doubt wondering how his Edinburgh passenger knew the details of this local tragedy. He glanced at the road, shook his bald head and looked in the mirror again. “I knew you weren’t a writer. You’re her father, right?”
Joe said nothing.
The driver said, “Whole life ahead of her. Tragic. Anything I can do. . .” he shrugged.
“If you really want to help,” Joe said, “you can shut the fuck up.”
This interchange is followed by Joe’s reflections on how he never has killed anyone, although he had sent multiple “punters” to the hospital with severe injuries. Cooper instead used another man, a shadowy figure named Park, to “take over where Joe normally stopped.” The place of this distinction, right after Joe intimidates the taxi driver, was interesting: Park and Cooper inhabit a different level of violence (and depravity) than Joe, but Joe looks and acts like a loaded weapon among ordinary citizens.
Guthrie gives this differentiation to the reader, and quickly demonstrates how other characters fail to recognize it. Adam is expecting Joe, but is convinced that he is guilty of past abuses that led to Gemma’s suicide. Before Joe can either assert his innocence or beat a confession out of Adam, the local police are there to rough our antihero up and put him in handcuffs.
The rest of the story involves a couple of other characters who end up helping Joe uncover the truth behind Gemma’s death and clear his own name. A hard-living prostitute, with whom Joe never actually has sex, sometimes shares in his baseball bat adventures. She also deceives the police, thereby occupying the same space of amorality and violence as Joe. A young, unproven lawyer is convinced of Joe’s innocence, and is thus willing to break some laws in order to help uncover the real villains. These two fill out the cast and help the story along, but are difficult to completely accept as realistic allies. It’s hard to see what exactly has motivated them to participate in Joe’s mission for payback.
They do, however, provide a clear contrast against the embodiments of greater evil — those ultimately responsible for Gemma and who have also tried to frame Joe for another murder. That makes the true villains false accusers as well as killers, occupying two defining roles of evil (the term satan, of course, comes from the old Hebrew term for accuser). In the end, Joe is explicitly tempted to join them in committing the sin of killing, if not the spreading of untruth. Having lost his family and never occupying a worthwhile role in society, Joe must consider what else he has left to protect.
KHG is grim in tone but remains a very clear and impressively paced read. Guthrie builds tension in an uncomplicated way and processes everything through the viewpoint of Joe, who by his nature has a limited understanding of how other people make their choices. The characters are therefore not the most deeply portrayed, but they embody a theme of moral actions taken by individuals (rather than institutions). This is a crime story that generally steers away from social commentary to focus on the choices available to even the most compromised. 7/10.