The Criminal Kind: Ken Bruen

March 22, 2012

Headstone by Ken Bruen

“TAYLOR, I HEARD YOU WERE DEAD” yells a cabbie in Ken Bruen’s ninth Jack Taylor novel, Headstone. Bruen’s series detective has endured enough booze, coke, beatings, and bruises to bury most of his private eye predecessors, but like a hardboiled Sisyphus, Taylor’s eternal punishment is to push bottles back-and-forth across a bar, taking cases as they come, seeking atonement that’s always out of reach, and accepting yet another glass of Jameson as a consolation prize.

Bruen first introduced Taylor in 2001’s The Guards, a boldly stylized and unapologetically poetic crime novel. Bruen’s voice is unmistakable: finely chiseled paragraphs that more closely resemble verse than prose — until you read it out loud, that is. Then you hear the natural cadence and conversational rhythm of his words. Taylor, too, is a one-of-a-kind character. Apathy, booze, and cynicism are the standard PI’s ABCs, but Bruen’s detective takes things to a whole new level. An ex-member of the Irish Guard, booted out for numerous alcohol-related infractions, Taylor passes his days and nights at the pub, pissing people off, getting into fights, and obsessively discussing music, film, and literature, stopping only when he blacks out or is offered a job. He spends as little time detecting as possible — a couple phone calls (often handled by friends) and a few intrusive questions to suspicious parties normally clear things up. It’s Taylor’s lovably cynical personality, rather than the mystery, that drives the story forward, along with his colorful, boisterous cast of cronies and fellow drinkers.

In Headstone, Taylor is the latest recipient of an anonymous package containing only a symbolic headstone. The previous recipients — an elderly priest, a young man with Down Syndrome, and an openly gay member of the Irish Guard — all met with savage, unexplained violent attacks. The only clue Taylor has to go on is a young girl who asks for help finding her missing brother, whom fans will recognize as the disturbed swan killer from 2002’s The Killing of the Tinkers. Taylor would spend more time working on the case, but he has his hands full with a job tracking down an AWOL priest who ran off with the church’s till. Meanwhile, headstone-related attacks continue to plague Galway, and Taylor can’t put off the mystery any longer; he must locate the attackers before the violence claims any more innocent victims.

Bleaker than David Goodis, colder than Derek Raymond, and funnier and more violent than Richard Stark, Ken Bruen is among the most original and innovative noir voices of the last two decades. Headstone may be ninth in the series, but it is clear that Bruen and his star Jack Taylor are far from running out of steam. And with three movie adaptations made from his work over the last year, Bruen’s career could be getting the big push he so deserves. Unfortunately, the movies themselves are a mixed bag. London Boulevard, opening in November, stars Colin Farrell and Keira Knightly, and is directed by William Monahan (screenwriter ofThe Departed), but it’s so soft around the edges it comes off as noir-lite; Blitz, which went straight to DVD, stars Jason Statham and is an all-around stronger film, with a potent mix of sarcastic humor and action heroism; and The Guards, a made-for-television German-Irish co-production, has no announced plans for U.S. distribution. Fans will have to wait a little longer for the perfect cinematic Bruen adaptation.




LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!