Monday, January 08, 2007

Trouble Bruen in Galway City

While I was in Ireland during the holidays, catching up with my to-be-read pile, I had the privilege of reading a pre-publication copy of Cross, the sixth and latest Jack Taylor private-eye novel from the award-winning Irish scribe Ken Bruen. (The book is scheduled for a UK release in early April.) Cross follows close on the heels of several acclaimed Bruen book debuts in the States--American Skin, Calibre, Bust (his Hard Case Crime collaboration with New York City novelist Jason Starr), and Dublin Noir, a collection of short stories he edited for Akashic Books. On top of all that, Bruen has a story, “Words Are Cheap,” in the debut edition of Murdaland.

If you’ve ever wondered how such a gentle and highly educated man could pen such dark, disturbing tales, let me point you to a few Web-available articles that will shed light on the more noirish corners of Bruen’s history. The 55-year-old wordsmith would probably like to forget some of his grimmer memories, but they played a major role in making him the melancholic and powerful author he is today.

Following the release of his first Taylor novel, The Guards, in 2001, Bob Flynn of Britain’s Guardian explained:
[T]he stark truth is that Bruen began writing novels--focusing on what his wife calls “the stabbing books”--as a cathartic therapy, expunging the nightmares that had haunted him since he was wrongly imprisoned and tortured for four months in Brazil. In 1979, Bruen accepted a teaching post in Rio de Janeiro, but soon after his arrival he was arrested, along with four other Europeans, after a fight broke out in a bar.

“The first night the jailors put my head in a bucket of excrement, just to wake me up. The second night they came for the rape sessions. There’s not enough alcohol or Valium in the world to wipe out those memories, and there’s the odd night when I’m back in the cell,” Bruen says. “After a couple of sessions I went into a kind of catatonia and they gave up on me. I was six stone when I came out, very traumatised, and they put me on a plane to London. I tried to keep in contact with the four other guys. But I’m the only one still functioning: two are dead and two are missing.”

After his release, Bruen based himself in
Brixton, where he started work on his first novel, Funerals, about an Irish boy who attends funerals as if they were football matches. It was published [in 1992] within a year of his return, and he resumed teaching at a school for marginalized children. Three more “mad, tormented books” followed before he embarked on all-out crime fiction with “The White Trilogy,” three blackly comic books about two near-psychotic policemen in Brixton, a kind of anti-Morse world that Channel 4 has optioned as a two-part series.

The edgy, pitch-black humour in all of Bruen’s crime novels springs, he is convinced, from a combination of his Irish background and the dark days of his imprisonment. “What saved me was what they call the bad drop in Ireland,” he says. “The little drop of bad blood in you that kicks in when you are up against the wall. I didn’t know I had it. I seriously considered suicide after I came back from Brazil, but something in me said, ‘If I do that, those fuckers have won.’ So I decided to write books, just to prove to myself that I was still alive if nothing else.”
I must give thanks to British novelist Donna Moore, the author of ... Go to Helena Handbasket (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2006), for bringing Bruen to my attention. I was in Ireland in the summer of 2002, when I read an article he’d penned in The Irish Times about his relationship with his young daughter, Grace. A moving piece, it convinced me to buy The Guards (which Moore had already been suggesting I read). I whipped through that novel in a matter of hours, drawn along by the beauty of Bruen’s prose. The following year, at Bouchercon 2003 in Las Vegas, I had the significant pleasure of meeting Bruen in the flesh at a party thrown by St. Martin’s Press. A friendship quickly flowered. One of the most memorable events of that convention was a night of rather serious drinking, during which the two of us were joined by Chris Mooney, Eddie Muller, and others. Bruen and I then met up the following day for a “pub crawl” along the storied Vegas Strip, which culminated in our being detained and questioned by casino security officers.

Having come to like the man, I tracked down his backlist of books and eventually interviewed him about his work. Although Bruen’s early writings are available in A Fifth of Bruen (2006), it’s his P.I. Taylor novels that have struck a particular resonance in me. I guess the reason might be that I’ve spent so much time in Ireland over the years, as I have family there; perhaps, also, what connects with me is the way that Bruen maps the changes in Ireland, where these stories take place. (Taylor plies his trade--what there is of it--in Galway, on Ireland’s west coast.)

Bruen has become a larger-than-life figure within the worldwide crime-writing community, a man who certainly knows his Glock from his Jameson. Craig McDonald, author of last year’s Art in the Blood and a well-recognized editor and interviewer, credits Bruen as “the undisputed King (and probably creator) of ‘Irish noir,’” a man who puts all of himself into his novels--“books populated by literate lowlifes and studded with stray lyrics and epigraphs pulled from other crime novels, poems, philosophers and songwriters spanning Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson and Tom Waits.” (The author was evidently grateful for McDonald’s attentions, for he has made the interviewer a minor character in Cross.)

He’s also turned into a hot property. Last year, Bruen switched UK publishing houses, abandoning Jim Driver’s independent The Do-Not-Press and Pete Ayrton’s Serpent’s Tail in favor of giant Transworld Publishing, a division of Random House--taking Jack Taylor with him. Bruen’s first release from Transworld was Priest, a novel made timely by sexual-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. (Priest was Taylor’s fifth adventure, preceded by The Guards, The Killing of the Tinkers [2002], The Magdalen Martyrs [2003], and The Dramatist [2004]). Transworld was only too happy to add Bruen to its stable. A year ago, the company’s publishing director, Selina Walker, organized a launch party for Priest in North London, that drew not only writers and editors, but also such notables as Starsky and Hutch co-star David Soul (pictured above, flanked by Walker and Bruen).

It was from Walker--a big figure herself within this popular genre--that I acquired my advance copy of Cross. This sixth Taylor novel starts out right where Priest left off, with Bruen’s Irish gumshoe still seeking redemption for the death of a child who tumbled from a balcony, and for a decapitated priest trapped in the shadow of child abuse. Readers worried that they should plow through previous Bruen tales before tackling this one need not worry; Cross throws you slap-bang into its story, no need for preambles. It finds our hero mooching around his customary haunts--the bars of Galway--buying drinks, immersing himself in the aroma of spirits and the colorful atmosphere of the pubs, but not letting himself drift back into the grip that alcohol once had on his life. Early on, he’s told by Ridge, his old colleague from the Garda (aka the police force of the Republic of Ireland), that a young boy has been found crucified; Taylor is also hired to track down a missing dog. Meanwhile, Cody, the kid Taylor considers to be his surrogate son, lies in a hospital ward, trapped in a frightening coma.

The P.I. finds himself at something of a crossroads. The city he calls home, Galway, is changing fast, like the rest of Ireland. No longer is it a sleepy European backwater; rather, today it’s a bustling gateway, transformed by economic expansion and property speculation. Once upon a time, Ireland was a place from which people fled in order to survive; now, it’s a land into which immigrants flood, hoping to share in newfound wealth. These great changes have brought to the nation crime in its many brutal guises--a good thing for Taylor’s business, but not for his psyche.

Bruen’s writing in Cross has a beguiling quality. The story is told in very intimate first-person, allowing us to crawl right into the tightest corners of Taylor’s mind and poke around in his thoughts. We acquire a good view of Jack Taylor’s existential thoughts about life, death, and whatever is meant by the word “humanity.” I can tell you, happiness is not something that crosses P.I. Taylor’s path often; and as he tackles the cases presented to him in these pages, a dark shadow falls over his few friends.

If you like your crime thrillers to challenge the way you think, then Bruen’s your man.

* * *
While you’re waiting for the April release of Cross, check out one of Bruen’s short yarns, “To Have and to Hold,” published last spring in the online mag Hardluck Stories.

READ MORE: Cormac Miller, author of An Irish Solution and The Grounds, has compiled a list of 51 Irish crime novelists--everyone from Liz Allen and John Banville to Ian Sansom and Paul Williams. A very useful and instructive resource. Click here for the full rundown.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ken Bruen may write of darkness but I have had a correspondence with him for a few months, we talk about life, love ,drugs(rock and roll !)not to mention Galway and Las Vegas, and I believe he excises the horrors he suffered through his stark characters, especially Brant, and has a personal life filled with joy and hope.You may notice that he definately loves women, very apparent in his writing. He makes my day happier several times a week;conversation with Ken is a light and happy thing, the darkness is in the books (maybe it's different if you are drinking with him !) Love 'im, Las Vegas Leila