There are rules in crime fiction. They say you must learn them before you break them. Some, regarding story structure or point of view, may be bent every which way. The genre is better for it. Others, however, mustn’t be broken. You are not allowed to hurt certain innocent beings. Beloved dogs, for instance. That’s a big no, no. Handicapped children, dying not at the hands of a villain but through the irresponsibility of the protagonist – also frowned upon.
These are not spoilers. Over fifteen books in his Jack Taylor series, Ken Bruen has visited these horrors upon his doomed Galway P.I., among endless others. Does Bruen care about these so-called rules in the new Galway Girl (Mysterious Press)? Does he spare the pure? As Jack Taylor would say:
This may put off certain readers. It is their loss. Because Ken Bruen may be the most fiercely original crime novelist alive. His books can be gulped down in a dizzying sitting like the bottomless Jameson that is always within Jack’s reach. Bruen’s distinctive style might best be described as prose-poem noir. Sentences splinter down the page, like possessed song lyrics. White space abounds. There is much ice beneath the iceberg.
Ken Bruen may be the most fiercely original crime novelist alive.
There is, simply, no one else who writes like Ken Bruen. I’m not aware of anyone who’d even try.
Which is not to say his books are not anchored by certain familiar tropes. Jack Taylor, after all, is a disgraced former cop turned P.I. He’s an alcoholic / addict of epic proportions. Such characters are rather familiar. Indeed, one of the joys in reading Bruen is the evident joy he takes in name-checking – and quoting – his own favorite authors. If you’re a budding crime writer in search of a syllabus to expand your education of the genre, I’d suggest starting with Bruen; read with a pen; underline his many shout-outs and go seek them out. You’ll have a working knowledge of your contemporaries in no time.
There’s a generosity of spirit here that some might identify as uniquely Irish. Jack Taylor would disagree with vehemence. (As he says of Americans in his latest: they still believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we are a well-wishing folk.) Taylor’s well-earned cynicism aside, I have a theory that Bruen gets away with inflicting such horrors on the innocent for this reason: There’s an inherent kindness in these pages that can’t be denied.
Galway Girl finds Jack still in all-out self-destruction mode after the death of his daughter. Given all the trauma he’s faced over fifteen books, it’s a bit of a miracle he hasn’t done himself in. Lord knows suicide has been contemplated with much seriousness. But again, there’s that kindness through all the hell. Jack can’t help it. He has a compulsion to help the weak. It’s as strong as his urge to drink. He might lash out at countless folks – reserving particular bile for priests – but he counts a nun as one of his closest friends. He may resort to violence with unsettling frequency, but then, few men buy more thoughtful gifts.
He has a compulsion to help the weak. It’s as strong as his urge to drink.
Most of all, though, he is a magnet for the most demented, sadistic, soulless murderers in Ireland, or anywhere else. They are drawn to him, both craving his attention and longing to kill him. In his latest, it’s the eponymous Galway Girl, a twisted she-devil named Jericho. She’s joined by two more psychotics with revenge needs of their own, but these are low grade lunatics by comparison. It’s Jericho who’s the black heart of the book.
When her time finally comes in the final pages, prepare yourself for one fiendish reckoning. The pure may suffer in this series, but the evil get theirs too.
Galway Girl is now available for purchase.
About Ken Bruen:
Ken Bruen is one of the most prominent Irish crime writers of the last two decades. Born in Galway, he spent twenty-five years traveling the world before he began writing in the mid 1990s. As an English teacher, Bruen worked in South Africa, Japan and South America, where he once spent a short time in a Brazilian jail. He has two long-running series: one starring a disgraced former policeman named Jack Taylor, the other a London police detective named Inspector Brant.