The big slosh: Guzzling neo-noir; Irish author Ken Bruen is redefining hard-boiled
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 June 2007)

Writers usually dislike the prosperity of others, and today in Ireland, EU-created affluence is disturbing the souls of the literary classes.

The attitude pervades crime writing as much as any other kind, as Ken Bruen demonstrates. The author of Irish noir thrillers, Bruen doesn't hide his distaste for the boom that's transformed Ireland.

Literary folk despise gentrification. They prefer poverty, even if it means starving children, because it's more authentic than, say, shopping malls. This attitude is a notorious deformation professionnelle of authors everywhere, but the Irish haven't had a chance to express it until lately.

Jack Taylor, the private detective at the heart of half a dozen Bruen novels, takes a sour view of success. He also hates cops, having been one himself till he was fired from the Guards, Ireland's national police force. ("Numerous cautions. Warnings. Last chances. Reprieves. And still I didn't shape up. Or rather sober up.")

As an antisocial lush, he's an unlikely prospect for success in the detecting business. Nor does his home town, Galway (population 60,000), seem a promising market for a murder-solving shamus. But it turns out that Galway contains enough mean streets to provide Jack with a modest income. Not that he lives up to Raymond Chandler's definition of the P.I., first published in 1944 in The Atlantic Monthly: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Jack would be the first to tell you he's tarnished by his battles with Jameson and Guinness. And he's definitely afraid, often afraid of falling down drunk.

Bruen's first novel, Rilke on Black, published in 1996 (before he invented Jack Taylor), uses an American hard-boiled style to tell the story, alternately horrifying and funny, of three South London losers trying to succeed at kidnapping. Rainer Maria Rilke's name appears in the title because one of the kidnappers, Lisa, a black prostitute, keeps quoting Rilke's translated-from-the-German poetry, which she learned while working for the man they plan to kidnap.

Her conversation baffles the book's narrator, Nick, an ex-bouncer and the chief kidnapper. He studies the word column in Reader's Digest so that he can accurately deploy "inebriated," "fracas," and other difficult terms. She combines street argot with references to T.S. Eliot and other authors.

When she decides she doesn't like Dex, the third member of the gang, she says: "He be the hollow man Mr. Tom Eliot look for."

Dex, in truth, is a homicidal maniac, not an ideal choice for a teammate. "There's a few dots off his dice," someone says. He has his moments, though, as when he explains that no one understands torture who hasn't heard William Shatner's version of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

The references to Eliot and other authors debuted an element that would appear often in Bruen's later books. One Jack Taylor novel, The Magdalen Martyrs (2003), combines uncivilized behaviour with a flood of literary references. Flaubert, Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Merton, Ralph Waldo Emerson -- they all appear in epigraphs to chapters.

Bruen has another theme for his fans to follow: Jack, a guilt-afflicted ex-Catholic, wants to expose the tyrannical church that raised him. The Magdalen Martyrs concerns sadistic nuns. In Priest (2006), the beheading of a notoriously pedophilic priest throws suspicion on several former altar boys.

Born in Galway in 1951, Bruen did a PhD in philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and then became an itinerant teacher of English. He worked in Africa, Japan, Southeast Asia -- and, almost fatally, in Brazil. He was in a Rio de Janeiro bar when a fight broke out. The police carted off four foreigners, including Bruen, and threw them in prison without charge. Bruen was released in four months, after guards had tortured him and used him as a sexual plaything. They brutality traumatized him and created his firm view of evil: "I'm not one of those people that believes there's no such thing as evil. I really believe it exists. Some people are born seriously evil" -- a point his books explore.

When he got home from Brazil he considered suicide. Instead, "I decided to write books, just to prove to myself that I was still alive."

That wasn't his only motivation. As George Orwell said, every writer wants to prove something to someone. Bruen had been a quiet child, considered backward by teachers. Relatives thought him eccentric because he read books, which they viewed with suspicion. His father, an insurance salesman, told him: "I would rather you be a homosexual than a writer." When Bruen told his father about his doctorate, the old dad said, "If you think anyone in this family will ever call you doctor you can kiss my arse."

Still, Bruen's attitude to his parent remains vaguely sentimental.

He says he sorted through his father's possessions after he died and discovered reviews of his books, clipped and inserted in the family bible.

"Every one of my books was in there. And I thought, he knew that I'd be the one clearing out. So this was his way of saying, 'You did OK.' "

The emphasis on alcoholism in Bruen's fictions has a didactic purpose, as he recently explained to an interviewer. Readers have suggested that Jack Taylor books take the fun out of drinking. "It's deliberate," Bruen said. "Enough books show the fun. I wanted one series to tell the truth, especially about Ireland. No one can say Jack has a high ol' time."

Jack experiences blackouts, desperate hangovers, shame -- the whole AA catalogue.

Bruen had a brother, Noel, a bright fellow to whom everything came easily: women, success, friends. He owned pubs in New York, London and Australia. He was Bruen's best friend. Some years ago he died as a derelict drunk in the Australian outback. Alcoholism doesn't run in his family, Bruen says. It gallops. And Bruen's wife lost both her brother and sister to drink.

In his books Bruen inserts another autobiographical element: Several references, and in one case the turn of a plot, concern children with Down syndrome; Bruen and his wife have a child with the condition.

It's commonplace for the authors of thrillers to use their lives and opinions as parts of their stories. In Bruen's highly readable books that process turns out to be unusually rewarding. Except, of course, for the asinine rubbish about prosperity ruining everything.

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