I like to think I have my finger on the pulse. That's why today I'm reviewing a debut book by a hot Scottish talent. And don't just take my word for it, this book was chosen as Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year. In fact, the book won the award on this very day.
But no. Really. See, Two Way Split, by Allan Guthrie, has just hit the kindle. You can get it straight to your device right now for 0.99 of your pounds, or for 1.59 of your shiny dollars. Go ahead and read it, I'll wait right here.
Robin Greaves is an armed robber whose professionalism is put to the test when he discovers his wife has been sleeping with a fellow gang member. Robin plans the ultimate revenge, but things go from bad to worse when the gang bungles a post office robbery, leaving carnage in their wake. Suddenly they are stalked by the police, sleazy private eyes, and a cold-blooded killer who may be the only one not looking for a cut of the money…
As our two long time readers will know, I'm already a fan of Guthrie's work. To read one of his novels, or novellas, is to read a story that has an evil glint in it's eye and knows where you live. He has a talent for making you laugh and recoil at the same time, and that always keeps me coming back for more.
There's plenty to explore here for the long term fan. Like listening to the first demo recordings of your favourite band, it's the chance to see what has changed and what has been distilled. there's the same cracking dialogue, and the same glee in throwing together the mundane and the abnormal. There are the early signs of themes that have run throughout his work, such as family and trust, and knowing the exact right moment to end the story.
But this isn't a nostalgia trip I'm going on here. What struck me about the book was what a great primer it was for a first time reader, and what a lean and controlled book it was for a debut author. And, as much fun as it was to see how how his writing has changed, it was even more enjoyable to see how much he got right first time.
Two Way Split has one of my favourite opening lines, one that I've looked at many times when I've been struggling to get a story going;
"Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator."
And there you go, you're into the story. It's not a line that's bursting to tell you the plot of the book, or to pull any fancy tricks. It doesn't even swear at you, which seems to be a popular trick. What it does, straight away, is give you an understanding of one of the main characters and the clear sense that somethings about to go wrong. It sets a clock ticking on the story without needing to blow anything up. That's classy writing.
He repeats the trick a couple of pages later, when introducing the character of Pearce;
"Winter in Scotland was far to cold to walk around bare-chested. That's why Pearce wore a t-shirt."
In two lines we have character, location and time. That, folks, is how it's done. More than any of his subsequent releases, there's something to these opening lines that reminds me of the clarity and rhythm of the first Parker novel, The Hunter, and of another good opening line;
"When the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell."
Stark is an interesting comparison point, because I'm always tempted to liken Guthrie's Pearce to Stark's Parker. But each time I think about it, I realise that their differences are more striking than their similarities. Pearce is only ever interested in the quiet life. He wants to live and let live, but he's not very good at it. He doesn't ask to get caught up in a stick up. All he wants to do is visit his mum, then maybe go home and listen to show tunes. Pearce is not so much an anti-hero as an anti-protagonist, hoping not to get caught up in another mess.
The real drive of the narrative comes from it's other main character, Greaves. In those opening lines we know that he's stopped taking his medication and that he's meeting with a private investigator. That's already telling us that he's in at least two different shades of bad. Then we find out that his wife is sleeping with his business partner, and that the three of them are planning to knock over a post office together. I'm not giving anything away in saying that the robbery goes wrong, because that's only the beginning. This isn't a story that attempts to keep a lot of plates spinning in the air, it's one that throws them all up at once and asks how loud the smash will be when they fall.
You wouldn't want to be around when all of these plot elements collide, but you will want to read about it.
If James M Cain wrote a heist story set in Scotland, the result would read a lot like Two Way Split. It's a book that sets the fuse on page one and then runs like hell, and you won't find a better debut crime novel. And did I mention that it ends in the perfect place? Oh, I did? Well, that's because it does. Keep an eye on this Guthrie fella, I think he might be a talent.
And you definitely want to check back here at DSD tomorrow. Trust me on that one.