Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor Mysteries

by Sarah on January 13, 2012 · 3 comments

As I mentioned in my last post, my reading progress has been sloooow of late. Lack of time and insomnia have led me to the joys of radio plays and a select few audiobooks. I say a “select few” because I’m an impatient soul. I’m not prepared to listen to a story for 20+ hours when I’d read it in a quarter of that time, but I’m also not a fan of abridged audiobooks. If I want to read or listen to a book, I want the real deal.

I’d been hearing good things about Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor mysteries for years. Keishon is a fan, as are a couple of other friends. One suggested I try the audiobook versions as they’re particularly well done. She was right. As Ken Bruen’s style is sparse, and his books relatively short (no more than a couple hundred pages each), they lend themselves well to audio. The narrator of the first eight books is an Irish actor called Gerry O’Brien. He does an excellent job. Each character has their own voice, and his accents are spot on.

The protagonist, Jack Taylor, is a fifty-something-year-old ex cop with a serious alcohol problem. A cliché, you might say, but Jack is anything but. His sense of humour make the books highly amusing reads, even when the subject matter is harrowing. Jack’s less than illustrious career as a Guard (Irish policeman) ended when he punched a TD (member of parliament) who he pulled over for speeding. Ken Bruen doesn’t directly name the political party the guy belongs to, but a choice couple of sentences makes it pretty clear it’s the one I particularly despise. Having been sorely tempted to punch a TD of that party myself, I warmed to Jack instantly. (The fucker blocked my car by double parking his limo, then refused to move, thus forcing me to stay in my parking space for nearly twenty minutes with a screaming baby. Why? To buy a pack of cigarettes, then shake hands with “his constituents”. Blech.)

In the first book of the series, The Guards, Jack is a half-hearted private investigator. PIs don’t really exist in Ireland, at least not in the sense of the American private eyes. Basically, Jack makes a bit of extra money by looking into cases the Guards don’t want to pursue, or have shelved as cold cases. As a former Guard, Jack still has contacts within the force, and – on the rare occasions he’s sober – excellent intuition.

As the series progresses, we see Jack struggle with drug and alcohol addictions, go in and out of rehab, have confrontations with his former friend, Superintendent Clancy, and his nemesis, Father Malachy. Oh, and solve a few interesting cases along the way. Ken Bruen focuses on topical issues such as corruption within the police force, abuse scandals within the Irish Catholic Church, and the treatment of the travelling community. In the books set during the so-called Celtic Tiger, he’s also scathing of the New Ireland and the crass consumerism the period of economic prosperity brought with it. Bruen’s views pretty much mirror mine on that whole topic.

A quick detour from the Jack Taylor mysteries: The Celtic Tiger was a period of unprecedented economic growth in Ireland between 1995 and 2007. Before that time, there were very few wealthy people, and – even after the Republic was recognised in 1922 – few of the Old Money types were Catholic. When I was at school, topics such as unemployment and emigration were popular exam paper fodder. They represented a very real problem, and the Irish government was constantly scrambling to come up with solutions to stop the Brain Drain (i.e.: educated and skilled workers leaving the country to look for work abroad).

As of the mid-Nineties, the economy started to take off. Suddenly, Ireland was overrun by the newly wealthy, and a whole lot more who were wealthier than they had previously been, and interpreted this as a cue to spend, spend, spend. In the past, these people would have been described as having “Notions”, of thinking they were better than they were. In Ireland, this used to be A Very Bad Thing. To put it bluntly: people who are not used to having money and access to seemingly limitless credit rarely handle it well; the Celtic Tiger produced an entire generation with this mindset.

I still lived in Ireland at the start of the Celtic Tiger, but I was an undergrad and didn’t benefit greatly from it. I do remember people telling me I was mad to leave Ireland when I did because finding a good job was so easy at the time I graduated university. (With its long history of emigration, the idea of someone leaving Ireland willingly as opposed to having to do so was an alien concept.) I didn’t care. I wanted to experience living in another country, and using another language, and I’ve never regretted leaving.

Within a couple of years of my moving to Germany (I left Ireland in 2000, lived in Germany until 2006, then moved to Switzerland), I noticed huge differences in Ireland every time I went back for a visit. Fancy shops and cafés replaced the unpretentious ones I remembered from my student days. Everyone – and I do mean everyone – was clad in designer gear and name-dropping brands. All the crappy jobs were performed by non-nationals, who were mostly treated with derision by the Irish. This was particularly ironic as previous generations had complained bitterly about their treatment as foreign workers living in Britain.

Luxury apartments and houses sprang up everywhere. (I use the term “luxury” with heavy sarcasm; the label was applied to every crappy building project in Dublin, however dodgy the contractors. Many of these are now quite literally falling down around their owners’ ears, or abandoned to become ghost estates after foreclosures.)

My former college mates boasted about how much money they were earning, and found the amount of debt they were in vastly entertaining. It was something they were particularly competitive about. If they earned €100,000 per annum, they spent at least €150,000. Prior to this – and excepting mortgages – getting a bank loan was something people did if they were truly desperate. Only the poor, or the very foolish, bought on credit. Now, students were getting massive loans to travel for a year rather than taking the old-fashioned work-your-way-around-the-world route. People got loans to install shit like hot-tubs in their homes. You know, the essentials in life. Banks gave out 110% mortgages. I mean, seriously, WTF? Suddenly, weekend shopping jaunts to New York became de rigueur. When I was a kid, only the mega rich did stuff like that. The arrogance was appalling. It got to the point I was ashamed to know these people, and I’ve lost contact with all but a select few.

Now I’m no economist. I claim no brilliant foresight when it comes to making economic predictions, or predictions of any kind. I certainly couldn’t foresee the dramatic implosion of the Irish economy in 2008. However, it was clear to me that the debt issue was going to come back to bite people in the ass at some point. It had to. Unless you’re heir to a massive fortune, you can’t keep spending more than you earn and not have it become a major problem down the road. Logical, no? I was not the only person who thought like this, although most were of an older generation, and remembered the hard times only too well. My generation, unfortunately, can best be described as obnoxiously obtuse. Even now, they blame the government and corrupt banking practices for their financial woes. While both of these insitutions have a share in the blame, I don’t have a sense from the younger Irish that they realise the role they played in their own financial destruction.

I’m under no illusions about my own character, by the way. It’s easy to see things more clearly from the outside. If I’d stayed in Ireland, would I have been sucked into the bling culture? I’d love to say “No way!” with conviction, but I’m guessing my principles, and good money instincts, would have been eroded within a couple of years and I, too, would have joined the ranks of the nouveau riche with neither money nor fashion sense. Perish the thought!

But back to Ken Bruen: The Jack Taylor mysteries are bleak, and they grow more so as the series progresses. While not heavy on gratuitous violence, personal suffering is intense. The mysteries in the first couple of books are almost peripheral to the character of Jack Taylor. This balances out in later books. The soberer Jack becomes, the more capable he is of investigating more complicated crimes. The secondary characters are well fleshed out, although frequently doomed. The moral of the story: don’t get too attached to anyone in a Jack Taylor mystery.

The increasingly harrowing storylines are made palatable by the use of humour. Jack’s drinking problem is a permanent presence, even in times of sobriety; his all-weather coat, pilfered from his police uniform, is his constant companion, and the letters from the Guards demanding its speedy return follow him wherever he moves. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from Jack’s small personal library of crime writers and poets. The Galway setting is lovingly described (Galway is a lovely university town), but at the same time, Bruen is unstinting in his criticisms of the Irish, as well as his praise for the aspects of Irish culture and character that he holds in high regard.

For anyone interested in trying the Jack Taylor mysteries, I’m including a list of the books in the series, as well as the blurb for Book One, The Guards.

Jack Taylor Mysteries

1. The Guards (2001)

2. The Killing of the Tinkers (2002)

3. The Magdalen Martyrs (2003)

4. The Dramatist (2004)

5. Priest (2006)

6. Cross (2007)

7. Sanctuary (2008)

8. The Devil (2010)

9. Headstone (2011)

Blurb for The Guards:

Jack Taylor is a disgraced ex-cop in Galway. Mourning the death of his father, he is slowly drinking to oblivion. He has an ability to “find things” and is asked to investigate a teenage suicide. This leads him into a dangerous confrontation with a powerful businessman. A darker conspiracy slowly unfolds. Aided by a punk girl, he fumbles towards a lethal solution. The narrative is fueled by black humour, stark violence and moments of radiance.

The Guards remain as a chorus in the background, never altogether past, infringing on Jack Taylor at the least expected moment. The intimate, bustling city of Galway, crashing into prosperity, illuminates the story at every turn.

Have you read any of Ken Bruen’s books? If so, what did you think?


Keishon January 13, 2012 at 18:10

I love Ken Bruen and jump on his books immediately without thought. What I love is his social commentary on Ireland and religion (the corruption thereof) and the privileged class. I’m sure there’s more but I am failing to articulate this morning. I love Jack Taylor and all his flaws and I love Father Malachy his nemesis in the series. This was an excellent post and I thank you for writing it.

heidenkind January 14, 2012 at 07:58

I hear you on the long audios. I try to keep my audiobooks to ten hours or less, which limits it quite a bit.

This series sounds perfect for a BBC adaptation!

Trish January 22, 2012 at 20:42

Having just read ‘The Guards’, I am now a Jack Taylor fan and can’t wait to read the rest of the books in the series. He gets the point across about modern Ireland (populated by the “obnoxiously obtuse”, a perfectly precise observation, Sarah) – with both affection and dismay. It’s easy to like Jack, his views on things mirror my own, and his sense of humor is his saving grace when his demons are out to destroy him.

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