London Boulevard by Ken Bruen

“What you regard as a small isolated incident sets off a chain of events you could never have anticipated. You believe you’re making choices and all you’re doing is slotting in the pieces of a foreordained conclusion.”

 

I’d wanted to read Ken Bruen for some time and after discovering that the upcoming film London Boulevard is based on a Bruen novel, well this was the perfect excuse I was waiting for. London Boulevard, by the way, is loosely based on Sunset Boulevard, and since that’s one of my favourite classic films, it seemed that all paths were leading me, finally, to Ken Bruen. It was fate….

 It took me about 40 pages of London Boulevard before I got used to Ken Bruen’s style. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the book before that point–I was hooked on page one.  Since finishing London Boulevard, I dug around the internet looking for reviews of Bruen’s books, and according to other sources, Bruen’s style is elliptical and very recognisable. It might drive some readers around the bend, and while I’ll admit that it took me some getting used to, the style suited the unemotional and unflappable world view of the novel’s main character, 45-year-old ex-con Mitchell.

The book’s narrator (and anti-hero)  Mitchell, is newly released from prison after a 3 year stretch for assault. He’s met by a shifty character named Norton who gives Mitchell the use of a furnished flat. At first the flat, which comes loaded with a full wardrobe of clothing (but no shoes), led me to think that Mitchell had landed on his feet, but nothing is free and Mitchell’s ‘luck’ has a dark side. In return for the flat, he’s expected to be an enforcer in a very ugly loan shark operation run by brutish gangster Tommy Logan.

But perhaps things aren’t as bad as they seem. Another piece of luck appears to falls into Mitch’s lap when he lands a job working  as a handyman for faded actress, Lillian Palmer.  Here’s their first meeting:

As she covered the windows I got a look. She was dressed in a long black gown. Blonde hair down her back. Then she turned.

Not at all like Bacall. More like John Cassavettes’ wife who I’d seen in Gloria

I’m bad at ages but I reckoned she was an expensive sixty.

Money and care had helped keep the face intact. She had startling blue eyes and used them to scrutinise me, then:

“I presume you’re here for an interview. Well? Speak up. What have you to say?”

Her voice was deep, almost coarse. The timbre that cigarettes and whiskey add. Course, arrogance helps too.

Mitch finds himself working for the demanding and autocratic Lillian Palmer, a woman who never stops acting various dramatic roles. He discovers a strange ally in Jordan–a man who acts as Lillian’s butler but in reality is “like Oddjob from the Bond movie.” Mitch juggles Lillian’s many demands with his obligations to Norton and Tommy Logan. Mitch doesn’t want to lead a life of crime particularly, but at the same time honest jobs are hard to come by when a man has a resume that includes 3 years in prison. Mainly, Mitch seems to want to build a life for himself and to avoid returning to prison. And what exactly did Mitch go to prison for? Well he beat someone. Quite badly. But then his memory is hazy about the entire incident. As the plot develops, other, ugly and unpleasant, memories crop up and are rapidly dismissed.

Mitch’s two lives eventually collide (as dual lives usually do), and he’s unable to keep everyone happy. Mitch is a great character. He’s hard to decipher–and while the tendency to work every criminal angle is absent, nonetheless, Mitch is not–by any stretch of the imagination–what you would call a good guy.

One of the interesting aspects about reading (apart from the entertainment and education value) is how we respond, as readers, to books. In London Boulevard, I found myself shifting Mitch into the good guy role. Why was that? Well he’s relatively good next to all the characters he has to deal with. Norton, for example, is a lower life form who takes trade from the desperate women who live in London slums and who can’t repay their loans. Norton has no scruples–no end point–no barrier that he won’t cross. And this is the same with Norton’s boss, Tommy Logan. While Logan dresses to impress, lives at a good address, and gets the best tables at the best restaurants, the major difference between Logan and his lowly enforcer, Norton, is that Logan doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.

Mitch is different. He has several relationships: Joe, a friend who sells Big Issue and his sister Briony. Here’s Mitch on Briony, and it’s a passage which is a good example of the author’s style:

Briony’s a basket case. A true out and out nutter. I’ve known some seriously disturbed women. Shit, I’ve dated them, but up against Bri they were models of sanity. Bri’s husband died five years ago. Not a huge tragedy as the guy was an asshole. The tragedy is that she doesn’t believe he’s gone. She keeps seeing him on the street and, worse, chats to him on the phone. Like the genuine crazies, she has moments of lucidity. Times when she appears

rational

coherent

functional

…then wallop. She’ll blindside you with an act of breathtaking insanity.

Surrounded by inchoate violence, insanity, corruption, opportunists, and liars Mitch seems to be, a least a rational, functional human being in a swampland of crime, and in Mitch’s world, even the shoe salesman is sleazy. So perhaps that explains why it’s easy to confuse him with the good guy. But there are no good guys here, just winners and losers. One of Mitch’s charms is that he’s an avid reader, and so London Boulevard is stuffed full of references to other crime writers. No wonder Mitch engenders a certain affectionate response.  

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “London Boulevard by Ken Bruen

  1. If the last quote is a good sample of Ken Bruen’s prose, then I like it.
    I had never heard of him but I see he wrote a lot of books. One has an intriguing title “En effeuillant Baudelaire”, the translation of “Dispatching Baudelaire”. I may look for that one.

  2. Crime writing like this is a niche I have yet to explore fully and I can see its addictiveness. It sounds like Bruen is a master of the genre. I like the quote “she was an expensive sixty”, with a voice created by cigarettes and alcohol. You don’t get that sort of thing in “literary fiction” do you

  3. BATC: I bought Once Were Cops right after reading this. Haven’t heard of the Bruen Baudelaire title, so I’ll take a look too. The author has a webpage http://www.kenbruen.com

    I’d heard of a lot of the books and crime writers Mitch mentions, but some were new and I had to make a note.

    • I probably have a twisted mind.
      The French title “En effeuillant Baudelaire” has different meanings. “Effeuiller” is a word you use literally when you tear a book apart, sheet by sheet (‘feuille’ means sheet). Figuratively, it means “to take one’s clothes off”. Does ‘dispatch’ have the same double meaning ?

  4. Tom: I’d never want to read crime exclusively, but I really enjoy a good title when I find it, and as you noted there’s a grittiness to this one. At one point, Mitch has sex with a prostitute, and it’s not heavily detailed (which I appreciate) but it’s rote–delivered no doubt for the umpteenth time that day by a woman who’s bored to tears. Mitch’s reaction was priceless.

  5. Dispatch can be a verb or a noun. When it comes to the verb use, it can mean dispatch as in sending something or it can also mean kill–although this is slang.

  6. I’ve had Bruen on my radar for a while, but I’d forgotten why. This is a nice reminder. It does sound nicely written, and Tom’s right: You don’t get voices created by cigarettes and alcohol much in literary fiction.

    I wouldn’t read crime alone either, but then I wouldn’t read literary fiction alone or SF alone. A varied diet helps keep all of them fresh.

  7. Max: I agree. Variety is essential. I made the mistake of reading two Jason Starr novels too close together, and as a consequence I lost the ‘flavour.’ I selected this Bruen novel because of the film connection. I think you’d like it.

  8. Pingback: Soleil Noir « Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

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