If you are unfamiliar with Paul Heatley’s work then “Guillotine” (All Due Respect) is a great place to start. Heatley is becoming a master of American noir in the vein of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain.
“Guillotine” opens in a nameless seedy bar in an unnamed town somewhere in the States. Even though the bar has one stripper lazily leaning up against a wall, it would be a stretch to call what she was doing dancing just as it would to call the bar a strip joint–it puts the down in a rundown.
Mikey sits in a booth in the back, near the toilets. The stink of piss wafts out the swinging doors every time someone goes to relieve themselves. He had a whiskey, and he sips it from time to time while he watches the door. He waits. Tommy said he would reach the bar at ten. It’s half past that.
Heatley tells the story in present tense giving “Guillotine” a sense of immediacy highlighted by the action that Tommy brings into the bar. He has a story to tell Mickey, a story involving a local crime boss and his twenty-something daughter who is on the lamb with one of his henchman. As Tommy’s tells his story, not only do we learn why he’s there and who his is, a typical low-level thug with unrealistic big dreams, we get some background on Mickey, a freelance hitman with an infamous signature, a signature that has given him the moniker Mickey Guillotine–a name he’s not to fond of.
“You know where he is, why don’t you do it?”
“Cos I ain’t you, Guillotine. I ain’t a pro.”
Mickey locks his eyes with Tommy’s bloodshot peepers. “Don’t call me that.”
Tommy holds up his hands. “Sure, sure.”
Heatly’s novella moves from Tommy’s failed meeting with Mickey and then the chapters swap between the principle characters: Lou-Lou and Leon, the couple on the lamb; Big Bobby Joe, the boss; Davey, his number two; Tommy; and Mickey. In each chapter we jump into the world of one of the characters, see the motivation, and watch their fuckups because this is noir and fuckups are just as predictable as gravity.
There is a tendency in crime fiction to have the reader to feel okay about what’s happening, that their voyeurism of this naked world is okay, that the reader feels better about themselves even as the story devolves into violence. Yeah, that doesn’t happen in “Guillotine”. Heatley embraces noir’s fatalistic motif and its compatriot the blackness of defeat. “Guillotine” strikes at the nerve of noir and never lets up.
“Guillotine” will only take you a few hours to read and it’s well-worth the $10.95.