US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 01-01-2003
291 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 05-14-03
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003
Jack Taylor, the hero (using the word loosely) of Ken Bruen's 'The Guards', is a drunk. Not a tippler, or a heavy drinker, or even an alcohol abuser, but a pure and simple, lost-his-job, lost-his-self-esteem, and soon-to-loose his-life drunk. And he is, of course, Irish. Full of torment, despair and, alternately, self-loathing or self-pity. Because he's also wise, poetic and, as the Irish do, uses humor as a way to cope with darkness, you can't help but care about him, especially as he's written in the sparse, powerful language of Ken Bruen in his first foray into the mystery genre.
Taylor aspires to become an Irish private detective. He's been kicked out of the Guarda, the Irish police force for drinking, despite the fact that the Irish police are known to enjoy a pint or two and the Irish people would have it no other way. He sets up shop in various Gallway pubs (where else), begins each day with coffee heavily laced with brandy, moves on to Guiness with kickers, and finally, when the pubs close, finishes the night at home with a few bottles of gin, or vodka, or scotch. Man, this guy will drink anything!
Into the pub one morning walks a beautiful woman (how many times have you heard that before) who wants to hire Taylor to prove her daughter did not commit suicide, as too many young girls in Gallway have recently done. The Guarda have closed the case, but she's convinced there's something more sinister. Taylor, of course, needs the work.
That's the plot, and that's all you need to know about the plot, because any semi-savvy mystery reader can figure out the rest from there. Which is a good thing, because Bruen pays little attention to moving the plot along. Three or four chapters of Taylor's activities and antics can pass without even a thread of plot. Jack starts a fight, Jack gets evicted, Jack gets beaten up, Jack gets sent to a sobriety clinic. Jack tries hard to stay sober, but Jack fails. It's often hard to keep events straight. Who's beating whom and why, who's a good guy and who's not. There's little exposition and few descriptions, but whenever it's absolutely essential, a plot point emerges, often coincidentally, to propel the story.
There's a small cast of memorable and off-beat supporting characters -the smart, kind, blue-collar father, now dead, the cold, strict mother, the Goth ex girlfriend, the pub owner and close friend Sean, the witty and wise street-living wino, and the wild and ultimately sinister painter friend. These characters add dimension and feeling to Jack's story.
Ah, but the writing. It's remarkable. There's not one extra word in this book. Just pure, hard-hitting, striped-down writing, with a little Irish poetry thrown in. The chapters are short, the paragraphs are short and the sentences are short. And the type is oftentimes set vertically, like bullet points without the bullets
Just like that. No punctuation. No warning. It jars your eye and makes you slow down, makes you read each word, almost out loud, and pumps up the impact. And it works.
'The Guards' is a mystery in name only. It's really a character-driven novel about Jack Taylor, his torments, his guilt, his poetry, and his wisdom. If you read for plot, action or flowery prose, don't bother with this book. If you want to meet a memorable character, written with force and originality, this book is for you.