Friday, August 29, 2008

Allan Guthrie's Savage Night

Two Way Split and Kiss Her Goodbye, Allan Guthrie's first two novels, are pure neo-noir. Savage Night is a bit of a departure (I haven't read his third novel, Hard Man, so I can't speak to that one). Savage Night is a blacker-than-noir, splintered story that calls forth comparisons not only with James M. Cain or Jim Thompson (Guthrie's title is taken from one of Thompson's odder novels) but also varied branches of literature from Magnus Mills's fables or Charlie Williams's backwater noir to the revenge tragedies of John Webster and Cyril Tourneur. Savage Night is a clockwork, each of the disparate elements (big and small) of the novel gearing inexorably toward one another, something like Pulp Fiction but with even more inexorability. The story starts near the end, with one of the murders that link the Park family and the Savage family, who are quickly becoming (and exceeding) the Hatfields and McCoys of Edinburgh. (I had dinner with the descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky a few years ago, but that'sa story for another time). At first, a reader might well wonder why he or she should be interested in these doomed lowlifes, Guthrie's dramatis personae. But I quickly became enthralled by the twists and turns of the back and forth plot, which takes on an inevitability as it moves forward (and backward, and then forward again) and also has the character of a comic farce in spite of all the bloodshed. Small details that seem like no more than colorful character development come back as essential elements of the story. Sudden shifts and bizarre situations (such as a brutalized naked man with a blanket hanging off him like a cape brandishing a saumurai sword), funny though they are, have a perfectly logical relation to the plot. Another very violent and very funny novel, Graeme Gordon's Bayswater Bodycount comes to mind, but Savage Night is more tightly structured and written. Guthrie's style in Savage Night is at once simple and complex, dumping you into the plot with no background or explanation, keeping the language straightforward, and offering a persistent reader the rewards of discovery as the story accumulates rather than developing in a linear fashion. This is an impressive novel and at the same time a lot of fun--right up to a poignant ending in which the story is sublimating into the air rather than reaching for a pat conclusion.

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