The first of Ken Bruen Irish noir series featuring Jack Taylor, one the Hound's greatest crime fighters, is a cracker.
Still stinging from his unceremonious ouster from the Garda Síochána—the Guards, Ireland’s police force—and staring at the world through the smoky bottom of his beer mug, Jack Taylor is stuck in Galway with nothing to look forward to. In his sober moments Jack aspires to become Ireland’s best private investigator, not to mention its first—Irish history, full of betrayal and espionage, discourages any profession so closely related to informing. But in truth Jack is teetering on the brink of his life’s sharpest edges, his memories of the past cutting deep into his soul and his prospects for the future nonexistent.
Nonexistent, that is, until a dazzling woman walks into the bar with a strange request and a rumor about Jack’s talent for finding things. Odds are he won’t be able to climb off his barstool long enough to get involved with his radiant new client, but when he surprises himself by getting hired, Jack has little idea of what he’s getting into.
Stark, violent, sharp, and funny, The Guards is an exceptional novel, one that leaves you stunned and breathless, flipping back to the beginning in a mad dash to find Jack Taylor and enter his world all over again. It’s an unforgettable story that’s gritty, absorbing, and saturated with the rough-edged rhythms of the Galway streets. Praised by authors and critics around the globe, The Guards heralds the arrival of an essential new novelist in contemporary crime fiction.
Jack Taylor has recently been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. With his Garda career over, he decides to set up as a private investigator in Galway.
He begins by finding things and gradually gets the reputation of being good at what he does. ‘A minor reputation began to build on a false premise. Most important of all, I was cheap.’
Taylor’s ‘office’ is his local Grogan’s, which is where he is one day when Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah has recently died and the police have reported it as a case of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. She wants Taylor to find out the truth. Taylor agrees to see what he can do and begins to ask questions.He soon finds that his former colleagues in the Garda aren’t going to be much help, but he continues to ask questions. One night he’s viciously attacked and it’s now clear that someone both powerful and vindictive doesn’t want him to find out the truth. But he made a promise to Ann Henderson and the fact that some people with clout don’t want him to succeed only makes him more determined. Besides, he’s begun to care deeply about Ann.Taylor soon learns that Sarah Henderson’s death may be related to the deaths of some other young girls. The trail leads to some high places and there is plenty of corruption in Taylor’s way as he goes after the truth.
To Bruen’s credit, the violence is neither excessively gory nor gratuitous and when we understand what’s really going on, we can see what leads to it. Still, readers who prefer all of their violence ‘off camera’ should know that it’s there. One of the really important elements in the novel is the character of Jack Taylor. He’s an ex-cop who drinks. Far, far too much at first. But he’s not self-pitying and he makes no excuses for his actions. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that at one point, he stops drinking and stays sober for a time. Even he admits that ‘Not being sick, hung over, was extraordinary.’ Matters aren’t made easier by the fact that there'sn a classic enabler who’d much rather Taylor were drinking again. Still, Taylor’s trying to stay sober, he’s hopeful about his relationship with Ann Henderson, and it’s not hard to wish him well as he struggles to move on with his life. At the same time, ‘An alcoholic’s greatest defect is a complete unwillingness to learn from the past.’ Taylor is clear-eyed about his weaknesses and blames no-one but himself for them. He has a sharp and self-deprecating sense of humour too. And he’s more than just a drunken PI. He’s somewhat philosophical and he’s an avid reader who appreciates poetry. There’s a streak of compassion in him too.Despite the fact that he’s far from perfect, Taylor’s made his share of friends and they’re important in the novel. For instance, there’s Sean Grogan, who owns the pub where Taylor spends a lot of his time.
In this novel very few people turn out to be what they seem.
It takes place in and around Galway and the setting and culture are distinctive. Here’s the way Taylor describes Bailey’s Hotel, where he stays for a time: ‘Near the Protestant School, just a Catholic away from Victoria Square, is Bailey’s Hotel. Now, this is old Galway. New hotels are built on every available space, but Bailey’s seems to have escaped the gallop to prosperity.’
The Guards is a distinctly Irish noir novel that tells an unpleasant story in a gritty way. At the same time, it’s got a dark thread of wit and interesting characters. It also introduces a complex sleuth who’s more than he seems on the surface.
About Ken Bruen:
Ken Bruen, born in Galway in 1951, spent twenty-five years as an English teacher in Africa, Japan, S.E. Asia and South America.
He has won Two Shamus awards by Private Eye Writers of America for the best detective fiction genre novel of the year for The Guards (2004) and The Dramatist (2007).
He has also received The Best Series Award in February 2007 for the Jack Taylor novels from The Crime Writers Association