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Spotlight on: Hard Man by Allan Guthrie

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Hard Man by Allan Guthrie Allan Guthrie, Hard Man

If you like your crime fiction unrepentantly dark, you should try Allan Guthrie, the fastest-rising name in the Scottish subgenre affectionately known as "tartan noir." Hopefully you've already read his explosive debut Two-Way Split (from great indie crime publisher PointBlank Press, which Guthrie later joined as editor) or his multi-award-nominated second novel Kiss Her Goodbye (from the amazing Hard Case Crime). Both take place within the same circle of society in Edinburgh, but follow different protagonists' stories.

In the UK, calling someone a hard man is akin to calling them a tough guy in the US ("Come on, hard man, show me what you've got," for example), and Hard Man, Guthrie's third novel and his first appearance in hardcover, is a direct follow-up to Two-Way Split. In that novel, we met Gordon Pearce, the "hero" (if you will) of the book — which merely means he was one of the least despicable characters — who went to prison because of his alternate use for a screwdriver in revenge for his sister's death. Soon after his release, his mother was killed and he sought revenge for that, too.

Now, just a few months later, Jacob Baxter and his sons Roger and Flash have sought Pearce out to help with their own family problems (he comes highly recommended by Jacob's nephew Cooper, a familiar name in this neighborhood). Their sister, sixteen-year-old May, cheated on her husband Wallace with another man and got pregnant. Wallace subsequently threw her out, but has been unable to leave her alone since, leading the Baxters to believe both she and the unborn baby are in danger (nothing near the danger the other fellow is in, but still...).

They want Pearce to protect her, but Pearce refuses to take the job, so the Baxters decide to force his hand. What nobody told them was that you never mess with another man's dog, especially not one he has named after his dead mother.

Despite a lot of really great scenes (including a crucifixion that goes on for pages!), Hard Man was a mild disappointment. It lacked the pure readability of Guthrie's previous work, and the humor felt forced in the beginning. Also, the story started off slow. Guthrie's characters (especially Pearce) think things through a good deal before they act, and these character digressions add depth, but they also drag down the pace. A crime novel needs to keep its pace swift.

Unfortunately, Hard Man also lacks any compelling characters that might have made up for this. Guthrie has created a succession of types with a few quirks to set them apart, but no one ever really jumps off the page, since they're primarily there to further the plot. This dearth of any interesting personalities made the book a struggle to finish: simply put, I couldn't bring myself to care what happened to anyone with the exception of Hilda the dog. I think the main problem is, despite all the thinking they do, everyone makes such stupid decisions that I had to roll my eyes (another hindrance to reading) as they committed blunder after blunder.

Even Pearce seemed to lack the basic intelligence necessary for him to have developed his stellar reputation. A single conversation would have cleared up any misunderstandings nicely and avoided the frustration and duress he experiences. If he didn't have the same name, I would not have guessed this was the same fellow who was such an engaging feature of Two-Way Split.

On the plus side, Guthrie's storytelling skill continues to improve. Once the action begins in full, it does not let up, and Guthrie certainly knows how to express intense pain on the page (something that is usually lacking even in horror novels). The humor is incorporated much more smoothly as the story progresses, and his plot shows cleverness and originality and is generally what kept me reading even through the down spots; I wondered what he would come up with next. I still wonder what he will come up with next because, despite my criticisms of Hard Man, Allan Guthrie remains one of the better crime writers working today, and I have no doubt that he will impress me once again.

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