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Underground Reading: Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie

This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery in order, one every week. You can follow along here.

Kiss Her GoodbyeKiss Her Goodbye (2005) moves the Hard Case action outside of the United States. Joe Hope is a leg-breaker for an Edinburgh loan shark. When you need money, and fast, you go to Cooper. If you don't pay it back, and fast, Cooper pays you a visit - with Joe and his trusty baseball bat in tow.

Cooper's a relatively simple man. He's got a ditzy young girlfriend, a lot of expensive whisky, a superiority complex and a nasty attitude. Joe's a more interesting proposition. Initially, he wanted to be a teacher - he fell in with Cooper more out of inertia than anything else. Joe wanted to support his wife and lazily made all the wrong decisions. Or, more accurately, he never made the right ones.

Now, Joe hates his wife (and vice versa) and spends most of his time swilling drinks with Cooper and seeking solace (and only that) with Edinburgh's dazzling array of prostitutes. He bets on horses, he's almost always drunk and, without realising it, he hates his life. The only thing Hope genuinely cares about is his daughter, Gemma. 

So, naturally (this isn't a cheerful book), Gemma dies. Suicide - or so he's told.

Joe flips out. Gemma was staying with a slightly worthless cousin, an obese "writer" named Adam who runs a retreat for other talent-challenged examples of the breed. As far as Joe was concerned, Gemma was Adam's responsibility. He hops on a plane, flies north, buys a baseball bat and tracks the man down... 

Except Adam's waiting for him - and so are the police. Apparently while Joe was busy planning murder in Kirkwall, someone was committing it back in Edinburgh. And Joe's the prime suspect.

As a formula, Kiss Her Goodbye winds up following a bit of the "innocent man accused" structure that's so familiar in this genre. Joe's suspected of a brutal crime that he did not commit. His alibi, however, is dodgy - as are his chances of being acquitted. As a result, he's on the run, both from the law and whoever framed him in the first place. Where can he go? Who can he trust? Etc.

Mr. Guthrie, however, adds in additional layers of "accusation". First, the reader knows Joe is no angel. By the end of the first chapter he's committed both assault and adultery, plus, we know he's both an angry man and a weak one. Mr. Guthrie establishes a certain level of distrust from the start: Joe's not only flawed but also we don't know where he'll draw the line - if ever. 

Second, Mr. Guthrie includes secondary point of view characters, and their perspectives throw even more holes into Joe's story. Tina, a prostitute with whom Joe has a rather unique relationship, thinks Joe is... ok... but is obviously skeptical. His whole relationship with her is a lie, and she, wisely, distrusts everyone. Adam, who Mr. Guthrie makes as sorry a figure as possible, has access to Gemma's journal. From what he can see, Joe, who he's never met, is nothing short of a monster. 

As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about Joe: his drinking, his impotence, his failures, and, perhaps, if Adam is correct, his abominable crimes. Mr. Guthrie balances this out with Joe's own point of view, in which the reader is 'reassured' that, at least as far as Joe knows, he's completely innocent. It is a tricky thing to get right - pushing the reader as far as possible without going to far - but Mr. Guthrie succeeds. He's aided in part by the very familiarity of the mystery's structure. The "innocent man accused" storyline is a known quantity; the reader assumes (rightly or not) that Joe will be vindicated. 

The result is a book that isn't quite as complicated as, say, The Confession, but still an effective, multidimensional look at one man's life. It is, in some ways, let down by its slightly cinematic ending, one aided by a tiny bit of rationalised hand-waviness, but Mr. Guthrie does do a solid job of tying together all the loose ends. Ultimately, it isn't even about the mystery - Kiss Her Goodbye is all about Joe. Gemma, the victim, is a complete cipher - even Joe doesn't know her well, as much as idealise fragmented memories of his absent daughter. Joe's hidden nemesis, his friends, his allies - even the other point of view characters - they're simply there to present more half-informed opinions of the book's protagonist. The mystery is how those all slot together to make the truth: what kind of man is Joe? When he's pushed to the edge, is he capable of greatness, madness or murder? Or perhaps all three? 

A solid cover by Chuck Pyle for this one, featuring Tina and a bat in one of the book's early scenes. At first glance, it is one of the book's least important scenes: Joe picks up Tina on a street corner. They are hassled by some drunks. Tina gives them a thumping with Joe's bat. The end. But there are a few nuances to the scene that help define both characters, making this a surprisingly good choice for a cover. Tina's the one in control, not Joe. He's wrestling with his impulses - wanting Tina, putting himself in the path of temptation, and then not acting on it. A weird conflict of strength and weakness. Tina, despite being the one on sale, is in control of the scene, and the battering (ha!) she hands out is only one expression of her confidence.

That said, still not one of my favourites. I'm just picky, I guess.

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