Dark heart of Midlothian

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ALLAN GUTHRIE CERTAINLY knows how to write an attention-grabbing opening to a novel. In this scintillating fourth outing from the Edinburgh-based noir writer, a couple come home to find someone decapitating a naked corpse in a bathtub in their sitting room. Before the end of the first chapter we have another corpse on our hands, and all of this really only acts as a prelude to the glorious mayhem about to come over the next 300 pages.

Guthrie is the best noir writer in the country at the moment, and easily a match for America's finest in the genre. He is adept at getting inside the minds of his lowlife characters, and the lack of any moral centre to his fiction turns it into a white-knuckle ride through a lawless wasteland where anything goes.

Essentially this is a tale of retribution, as two violent families slug it out through a series of astonishing set pieces to avenge deaths and right wrongs, as they see it.

Andy Park is a fireraiser and thief who, along with his daughter Effie and her boyfriend Martin, think they can get their own back on a crooked businessman whom they suspect of having had Martin's father killed. The Parks also think they can make a little money into the bargain, which would help pay for full-time care for Andy's brain-damaged wife.

Tommy Savage is the crooked businessman in question who, along with his brother Phil, acting as the brawn to his brains, refuses to get taken for a chump in a blackmail scam. When news of a murder comes to him, he realises he's not dealing with a lightweight, but he still thinks he can handle things.

He's wrong, as is Park when he thinks his plans are foolproof. Indeed, a running theme of Savage Night is the lack of slick professionalism in the wrongdoings to hand. Too often in drama and fiction, bad guys are portrayed as effective killing machines, and it's refreshing, not to mention unnerving, to read about the occasionally hapless exploits of Guthrie's characters, about the logistical problems associated with murder, abduction, torture and the disposal of bodies.

Added to all this, Guthrie makes his main character, Park, haemophobic – that is, he passes out at the slightest sight of blood. This adds a further level of complexity to the story which, along with other moments of singular idiocy or simply pure bad luck, has a vein of purest black humour running through it.

As the body count gets higher, more members of each family become involved in a cycle of violence that leads to an inevitably tragic end for almost everybody involved. Indeed, there are moments when Savage Night has the feel of an Elizabethan tragedy about it. Without giving too much away, the ending could easily be a gruesome updating of Hamlet or Macbeth, but with samurai swords, handguns, petrol-soaked arson and bone-crunching violence.

But while a lot of the action is extreme, Guthrie is careful not to make any of his characters evil for the sake of it. He switches between umpteen different narrative points of view, and is skilful at creating rounded characters with their own motivations and desires, in the space of just a few short sentences.

No one in Savage Night does bad things for no reason, but because they have been forced into a situation where there is little or no alternative. That is the key to Guthrie's success as a writer: he can create a brutal and compelling mess of a situation, but it's one that seems inevitable – his characters seem doomed from the start, and they often know it, but there's nothing they can do to alter what is to come.

One small criticism is that, in an effort to streamline the action, he forgoes any lengthy descriptive passages. This occasionally means his individual scenes are not as vividly depicted as his characters and their motivations, but that is a minor problem in what is another thrilling journey into the dark heart of Scotland's capital.

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