Written by Ken Bruen — Irish crime writer Ken Bruen’s series featuring Jack Taylor, a former officer with the Garda in Galway, is now a TV show starring Game of Thrones actor Iain Glen as the private detective. But for the full hit of 100 proof Irish noir you need to read the novels, which now have an even richer resonance given the country’s economic travails.
Purgatory is the 10th book in the Jack Taylor series, which began in 2001 with the award-winning The Guards, so it’s not the obvious starting point. And yet it’s also highly contemporary – there are references to Obama’s re-election and the planned introduction of domestic water charges in Ireland – so if you like crime novels that reflect the current headlines, Purgatory is about as close as you can get.
The terse, precise writing also means that Bruen can supply the backstory within a few sentences. When we meet Taylor, he’s gained a windfall though he’s lost a few fingers as a result of his previous case. He’s also off the booze (as well as the pills and cigarettes). ‘I finally figured out booze wasn’t easing my torture but fine-tuning it,’ is Taylor’s insight into his addiction. However, it would be naïve to expect a modern noir novel that’s entirely non-alcoholic.
With the assistance of his few remaining friends, Taylor’s been drawn into a case involving a psychotic vigilante identified only as C33 who, as the blurb says, is scraping the scum off the streets of Galway. The book opens with the shocking execution of a skateboarder in mid-flight, but neither the press nor Garda are troubled by the seemingly random killings of rapists, drug dealers and violent criminals who escaped justice. Dexter with an Irish lilt, is Taylor’s summing up of this case.
TV shows are indeed an obsession of Taylor’s – and presumably the author’s – with regular references to programmes such as Breaking Bad, Family Guy and Damages. Taylor’s also surprisingly bookish for a tough guy, and there’s an obvious relish for the genre as Bruen uses quotes from leading women writers including Karin Fossum, Fred Vargas and Gillian Flynn as well as literary figures Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain… and, yes, Ken Bruen.
While the contemporary hardboiled style makes Bruen a distinctive voice in the crime genre, the brevity of the book does prevent any kind of careful plotting or gradual character development. Taylor’s friend Stewart is a former dope dealer turned Zen-like entrepreneur (it’s all a bit vague) though it’s never explained why he feels compelled to join the C33 investigation. Reardon, a tech billionaire who’s intent on buying up Galway, falls in with Taylor for no particular reason and it all happens over the course of a few pages. The bursts of violence are shocking and well-handled, though this is also one of those books where characters suddenly possess superhero-like martial arts skills.
US authors such as James Lee Burke write more convincingly about a lawless environment in a supposedly civilised country, but Bruen’s sharp dialogue and self-awareness almost make you forgive him. ‘They tell me mystery is the money-spinner these days and, Lord knows, you talk in a disjointed fashion that might even pass for style,’ says the nicotine-stained priest who suggests Taylor turn to crime writing. And there can’t be many Irish writers daring enough to have a senior Garda officer describe a major operation against a crystal meth dealer as going ‘Cromwell on his arse’.
Whether he’s railing against his lunch date’s skinny jeans, offering a bitter aside on the Irish austerity measures or dealing with an insistent nun who wants him to find the stolen Our Lady of Galway statue, Taylor is always entertaining, acerbic company. While the plotting is not necessarily Bruen’s main concern, I was ultimately won over by his razor sharp prose and bookish, belligerent hero in this brutal yet funny state-of-the-nation noir novel.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Andre.