Sunday, May 11, 2008

Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Hell's Door

I moderate a mystery reading group, the obviously titled Murder Ink, at the local Barn O' Novels, here in sleepy, sunny Palmdale. It's a fun group, a monthly break from the routine, although most months I'm the only guy in the group. And most of the ladies lean to the lighter end of the spectrum (or profess to).

Still, stubborn cuss that I am, I keep trying to occasionally slip some harder, darker fare into the mix -- a Chandler or Hammett here; a Robert Parker or Mosley there. And we try to mix things up a bit, ranging from new or newish writers to old classics (Doyle, Sayers, etc.) to off-the-beaten track cross-over stuff (Elizabeth Lowell, Isaac Asimov).

So, when someone suggested we "do" a Ken Bruen ("that Irish guy you're always talking about"), i jumped at the chance. Jack Taylor, the alcoholic ex-Guard turned Galway eye, the gumshoe with all the heart and hurt of a dozen dead poets, is one of my favourite P.I. series; a literate, uncompromising stroll to the abyss and back that gets me every time. And so I oh-so-subtly lead them to one I hadn't yet read, figuring it would be a good way for me to both catch up on the series (and revisit Galway, the "dirtiest city in Ireland") and meanwhile maybe ruffle a few smug suburbanite feathers.

Oops.

The Taylor series has always been on the dark side, but Priest (2007), the fifth in the series, is something else again, a bruising, brutal blast of sustained white hot rage and bottom of the glass despair as bleak and black as it gets.Taylor doesn't so much go for a look at the abyss this time -- he jumps in and does a few laps. This isn't slipping into darkness; it's a headlong dive.

In fact, the book kicks off with Taylor just finishing up a little dip, and he's dripping wet. He's fresh out of the looneybin, his mind short-circuited by prolonged abuse and raging guilt over the death of a child, with few prospects and fewer friends, facing a hollow and hopefully (but probably not) alcohol-free future. Meanwhile, a nun has just discovered the severed head of a priest in the confessional -- a priest recently accused of child molesting.

And then things get dark. Before the book is finally nailed shut, there will be murder done and a grisly sort of reckless, wild justice meted out, hearts and lives shattered, drinks drunk (or not drunk) and blood spilled, poetry and music (Springsteen, Cash, Zevon) evoked. And souls forever fucked.

Taylor's (and Ireland's) complicated relationship with the Catholic Church, the lies and wreckage left behind by Ireland's economic success, and his own thundering despair -- they're all here, all ratcheted up to ear-bleeding volume. I thought The Magdalen Martyrs, a previous book in the series, where Taylor took on the Church's systemic abuse of unwed mothers and his own tormented relationship with his mother, was fierce, but this one screams like the mother of all banshees.

What was I thinking?

And Taylor's a far cry from an affable character. In the hands of a weaker writer than Bruen, he'd probably be detestable and utterly unreadable. But Bruen does it with seeming ease, one of the freshest, most distinct voices in crime fiction today. He doesn't so much have style as an M.O.: the plots in the Jack Taylor series seem almost assembled, not written, a swirling jangle of stream-of-consciousness rants, random encounters, chance meetings, out-of-nowhere lists, quotes, fever dreams, newspaper clippings and poetry snippets, and even, sometimes, a little detective work. Holding it all together is Bruen's skill and fierce vision, and of course Taylor, a black hole of a hero if there ever was one.

So, yes, Taylor can be obnoxious and a bully, stupid and mean-spirited and nasty to those who would try to love him, a mostly charm-free, self-pitying grade A fuck-up whose tragedy is that he knows he's a fuck-up, but can't seem to keep the decks from tilting. But there's something about him. And there's always a tiny, tiny sliver of hope, of redemption, a compassion in each book that keeps me reading.

Of course, that tiny splinter invariably and inevitably becomes infected and has to be lanced, but hey, this ain't no Lifetime movie.

Long before Bush and Cheyney made torture fashionable, Taylor was doing it to himself.

He's a one-man weapon of self-destruction; a man whose adult life has been one long Sunday morning coming down, puncuated by lost weekends and bad choices. Because his real battle, of course, is not with the Church or the powers that be, with corrupt cops or Celtic Tiger criminals in their shirts and their ties, but with himself. His alcoholism, his obsessions with past crimes, real and imagined, his burning guilt as he slowly circles the last exit to Hell -- rarely has someone conjured up such a vivid and poetic sense of noir and somehow managed to transform it into an ongoing series. And it ain't that pretty at all.

But therein, maybe, lies its beauty.

I can hardly wait to see what the ladies' reactions will be. May God have mercy....

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Keith Logan said...

Just finished this a couple of hours ago - some right nasty business, there. Thoroughly mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, and who other than Bruen has such a vibrant rhythmic storytelling style? Only Ellroy on his best day, I'd say. I love the fashion in which Bruen uses language, incredibly poetic, beautiful and harsh.

So how did the old ladies take to this book after all?

Keith

9:28 AM, June 07, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

The "old" ladies actually loved it... I was actually a little surprised, since one of them considers herself a devout Catholic and a few others are pretty staunch conservatives. But I think it's a tribute to Bruen's power and skill as a storyteller that nobody was offended.

When you believe in a character, you'll follow them anywhere. And Jack Taylor, for all his faults, is about as believable a mess of a man as crime fiction has these days.

Ellroy on his best day doesn't come close to the sense of damaged humanity that drips from Bruen's work. Ellroy writes (and writes well most of the time) about characters that are larger than life -- Bruen writes about characters whose lives are simply large.

11:31 AM, June 08, 2008  
Anonymous Keith Logan said...

I'm with you on the differences in Bruen and Ellroy vis-a-vis characters , plots, and such; I was referring specifically to a unique use of language. I cannot think of any other crime writers who have such distinctive styles. Really. Maybe Vachss in his hyper-terse short story mode.

I think I could read something by Bruen, not knowing it was by him, and recognize it as his work anyway. Take the Bruen challenge!

Didn't any of the ladies complain about coming into a series with book #5?

6:25 PM, June 08, 2008  

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