Category Archives: Bruen Ken

Purgatory by Ken Bruen

“How many times and in how many fucking ways could you adapt Pride and Prejudice?”

Purgatory, the 10th novel in Irish author Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series, finds former cop Taylor in post-boom Galway, haunted by his past and missing a few fingers. Jack has given up alcohol after reasoning that it “wasn’t easing” his “torture but fine-tuning it.” and while his attitude towards society in general has soured, his personal fortunes have improved with the discovery of a nestegg which he grabs before the church gets a whiff of it. Not that he mourns the death of his parents:

My mother wasn’t a simple bitch. She was more evolved, a cunning sociopath who hated the world under the guise of piety.

He’s got new digs, and almost as though he’s expecting the apocalypse, he’s lining the walls with as many books as he can. He turns down missing persons cases, and seems set to detach himself permanently from society when he finds himself dragged back into the mire by two things: the emergence of C33, a vigilante killer and the acquaintance of Reardon, a young dot-com billionaire who’s rapidly buying up Galway.

PurgatoryWhen Jack receives the first anonymous note from C33, he dismisses it, but it soon becomes clear, with the discovery of several dead bodies, that C33 means business. C33 delivers retribution to those who’ve escaped the consequences of their crimes, and for some inexplicable reason, the killer wants Jack to join in–even pointing him towards the next intended victim, and telling him it’s his “turn.” Since Jack is in disconnect mode, he sets his old “reluctant ally” Stewart, “former yuppie dope dealer,” on to the trail of C33. Besides, Jack has his own distractions with a woman 20 years younger–the enigmatic and very dangerous Kelly. It turns out that ignoring the killer, and focusing on Kelly is a bad mistake….

Bruen nails character in his own inimitable fashion with a few sharp sentences:

Peg Ramsay was not a nice lady. There was little in her background to indicate she’d become a mean, vicious, greedy cow. She was simply a bad bitch.

And:

Peg was a heft of a lady, in her rough fifties, with a face that no makeup was ever going to conceal, a face that had learned hard, sustained it. A shitload of jewelry that rattled like a conscience when she moved. A smoker’s pallor, that colour I know, inside and out. She rasped, “Taylor, well I’ll be fucked.”

Nice.

Purgatory is full of Bruen’s unmistakable voice so we not only learn about Jack Taylor’s reading habits (he’s on a female crime writer binge), but we also learn, in a quote that gives a sense of Bruen’s lean, abbreviated style, that Jack will never own a kindle:

Jack had been educating her in crime fiction and, so far, she had seven of the James Lee Burke titles. And, oh horror, she’d told Jack,

“I’m thinking of getting a kindle.”

See him explode.

Like this.

“Yah dumb bitch, you’ve read what? Six books, total? And what, you’re going to have storage for thousands of books. Get fucking real, lady. You think I’ll come round your house, ask, “hey, can I browse through your Kindle?”

This entry in the Bruen canon is dark and while there are touches of humour, they’re few. Instead Jack Taylor is close to dismissing the whole of the human race, and he’s fine with that, but the vigilante killer is dismissing people in a whole new way, and when the killer’s reach touches Jack’s life, he’s forced back into the game.

On the rating scale, I prefer Bruen’s standalone London Boulevard and A White Arrest–crime novels I cannot recommend highly enough. Bruen’s lean novels somehow manage to clean the mental palate, but a vigilante killer makes this reader wince–especially one who seems to have the abilities of the SAS. While Purgatory has all the prerequisite Bruen skill, it feels a little tired or even end-stage plot-wise (you’ll see what I mean when you read the book) and that may partly be just Jack’s exhaustion with the human race oozing through the pages. Anyway, Bruen/Jack Taylor fans won’t be able to say no, but it’s not his best.

review copy

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The Tower by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Tower, a hard-boiled, stand-alone crime novel is the collaborative work of Irish author Ken Bruen and American writer Reed Farrel Coleman. Framed with a short prologue and a very brief afterword, the story is divided into two parts: one told by gangster, Nick and the other told by his best friend Todd. Nick is a low-grade criminal, the son of a former policeman, when he is introduced by Todd to “small-time racketeer” Boyle,  and the two friends become part of Boyle’s crew. Boyle is into “cards, hot goods, intimidation, muscle,” and although Boyle is violent and unpredictable, he appears to take a “shine” to Nick, offering him more work and better perks. At the same time, Todd seems to separate himself from Boyle, but perhaps there’s an ethnic basis to these loyalties. Todd is Jewish while Nick and Boyle are both Irish extraction. Boyle is third generation Irish, “stage Irish” according to Nick, who because he’s visited there a few times, sports a false brogue and thinks he’s the ‘real’ thing.  On the other hand, Boyle’s main thug, Griffin, from Belfast, is the real deal, and it’s rumoured he was a Provo. Boyle, who seems to think it’s all about presentation, is “an ambitious prick who had worked his way up the sewer pipe to the toilet and from the toilet to the gutter.” Boyle is prone to moments of unpredictable violence but sports a false gregarious, even generous veneer which is somewhat theatrically accompanied by bible quotes. Griffin, on the other hand, is impenetrable, shifty and psycho. They make a good pair. Biblical Boyle (as he’s called behind his back) would be easy to underestimate:

My life was crammed with Micks, my family and most of the guys I knew. Boyle was one of the most irritating. Third generation, he’d been to Ireland a few times and had more than once told me to get my arse over there, touch my roots. I assured him it was one of my goals but the only place I wanted to go was Miami. The warehouse had posters of Dublin and Galway, Galway with that Bay, and Boyle wasn’t above singing a few bars of that song, “If I ever go across the sea to Ireland” and he sang like a strangled crow. In his late fifties, he had that barroom tan, the bloated face from too much Jameson, the busted veins along his cheeks. Small eyes that darted like eels and it would be a big mistake to think the booze affected his attention. If anything, the drink seemed to work on him like speed for anyone else, got him cranked.

In spite of their ethnic differences, in many ways Todd and Nick have always been on the same path,  and problems begin when they split up. Todd goes off to do some work for Boyle in Boston, and while he’s gone, Nick, initially the more violent of the two friends, gains more and more favour with Boyle. He’s rewarded with a gold rolex, and then an apartment in Tribeca after persuading Boyle’s faithless girlfriend that it’s in the best interests of her health that she move out. Now.

towerThen Todd returns but he’s not the same; his new-found taste for violence stuns even Nick. Events spiral out of control with Todd seeking vengeance and Nick, snorting Cocaine every chance he gets, caught in a cobweb of conflicting desires and loyalties.

Boyle’s time was at hand. Nick and Todd’s as well. From the second they chose the life, they chose their deaths. I used to talk to men I guarded about this stuff. A lot of them were not so different than Todd and Nick, guys who, for whatever reason got swept up in the world of violence and easy money. Some were stone killers, Griffin prototypes. They were easier to understand. The guys like Todd and Nick, they never had much to say. It was as if they were at some destination, but vague on how they got there or why they had gone in the first place.

Tower, a tale of alliances, loyalties and revenge unfolds quite cleverly through its two narrators, and while we get a solid sense of just who Nick and Todd are, this is primarily a plot-driven tale. My copy has 172 pages and looking back over the plot, it’s easy to see that there’s very little fat here. Some of the events that occur are seen in overlap through the two different perspectives, and so some unanswered questions are explained by Todd’s version of events in part II. As a hard-boiled crime novel, this is a very dark, sharp, tight tale–bleak and doom-laden with scenes of horrendous violence, so the squeamish need not apply.

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A White Arrest by Ken Bruen

“See, you gotta let ‘em see you’re the most brutal fuckin’ thing they’ve ever seen.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed London Boulevard some time ago, so when I was offered a copy of A White Arrest, I grabbed it. After finishing London Boulevard, I picked over this author’s back list and discovered that A White Arrest,  the first part of a trilogy followed by Taming the Alien and The McDead, was OOP and pricey if you could find it. Now back in a $9.99 kindle version is the entire The White Arrest trilogy. People can bitch as much as they want about the evils of the kindle, but for many crime fans, electronic readers have brought back some fantastic titles. Case in point.

the white trilogyFirst things first: A White Arrest, and a term I’ll admit I’d never heard before, is  an arrest that is “the pinnacle of a policeman’s career,” and now that I’ve given that description, I’ll say that it seems extremely unlikely that Irish Detective Sgt. Brant, the antihero of this story is ever going to get white anything. That’s because Brant isn’t exactly a by-the-book copper. He’s crude, coarse, a sexist who leaves a trail of complaints in his wake. Brant’s boss is Chief Inspector Roberts, and they are known in the department as R and B:

The relationship twixt R and B always seemed a beat away from beating. You felt like they’d like nothing better than to get down and kick the living shit out of each other. Which had happened. The tension between them was the chemistry that glued. Co-dependency was another word for it.

Both men have hellish personal lives. Roberts has a fancy house and an even fancier wife, and together they have a teenage daughter who just got kicked out of private school. While Fiona Roberts pulls the disapproving Ice Queen routine on her hubbie on a nightly basis, her afternoons are spent on the sly buying sex from studley, oiled young men. Whereas Roberts’ expensive and complicated home life is poison, Brant is now single and his flat is a “one room basic unit. He kept it tidy in case he scored.”

To complicate matters, Brant fancies Fiona Roberts, and there is some debate whether this misplaced lust is genuine or whether it springs from a desire to cuckold Roberts. Every interaction between Brant and Roberts is fraught with tension–Brant, for example, insists on calling Roberts Guv–even though he’s told repeatedly to knock it off. On another level (and one I’ll admit I delighted in) there’s an ongoing literary duel between the two coppers about the best crime writer. Brant is a fan of Ed McBain, and he owns a prize collection of his favorite author’s books in his grotty council flat in Kennington with “one whole wall devoted entirely to books.” He owns the entire Ed McBain series, “two shelves were given to the Matthew Hope series” and the bottom shelf is the home of the Evan Hunter books–or as Brant likes to think “the three faces of the author.” When Brant isn’t quoting McBain, he’s trying to get Roberts to read him, and the fact that Roberts rejects McBain only underscores Brant’s view of his boss’s serious character flaws. Here’s Brant trying, unsuccessfully once again, to get his boss to read McBain.

I’ve another McBain for you.

He tossed a dog-eared book on to the desk. It looked like it had been chewed, laundered and beaten. Roberts didn’t touch it, said: “You found this in the toilet, that’s it?”

“It’s his best yet. No one does the Police Procedural like Ed.”

Roberts leaned over to see the title. A food stain had obliterated that. At least he hoped it was food. he said: “You should support the home side, read Bill James, get the humorous side of policing.”

“For humour sir, I have you–my humour cup overflowed!”

In spite of the fact that tension flows between Brant and Roberts, they work well together, and oddly enough Roberts protects Brant at crucial moments. When the novel begins Brant is in no small amount of trouble.

All his little perks, minor scams, interrogation techniques, his attitude, guaranteed he’d be shafted before the year was out. A grand sweep of the Met was coming and they were top of the list. Unless … Unless they pulled off the big one, the legendary White Arrest that every copper dreamed about. The veritable Oscar, the Nobel prize of criminology. Like nailing the Yorkshire Ripper or finding the shit-head Lucan. It would clear the books, put you on page one, get you on them chat shows. Have Littlejohn kiss yer arse, ah!

So those are our coppers, well a couple of them. There’s also WPC Falls “the wet dream of the nick. Leastways she hoped she was. A little over 5′ 6″ she was the loaded side of plump, but it suited her.” And there’s young, weak Brant wannabe PC Tone who imitates his idol and feels “dizzy with the macho-ness” of unaccustomed phrases and actions.

Now to the crimes: there are no less than two serial murders taking place. A gang of young racist thugs begin by murdering drug dealers and then move on to other targets, and then there’s a total psycho who’s bumping off members of the England cricket team in spectacularly exotic fashion. R & B are on the trail of the killers with Brant determined to get his White Arrest and wipe his dirty slate clean.

In spite of Brant’s abrasive, coarse personality, there’s the core of twisted idealism alive and well festering in his perverse heart. In between ripping off pizza delivery boys, and harassing Indian newspaper vendors, Brant, a crime film and fiction aficionado freely quotes from some of his favourites and would like to style himself on the Ed McBain novels:

For some perverse reason he finds that Ed McBain in the police procedural comes closest to the way it should have been. Long after he’d dismissed Dixon as a wanker. his heart still bore the imprint of Dock Green. In Brant’s words, television had gone the way of Peckham. Right down the shitter.

It’s through Brant that one of the novel’s sub themes is most evident, and that’s the way we tend to need heroes in our lives; there’s PC Tone whose desire to emulate Detective Sgt. Brant leads him on a deadly path, there’s Brant who really wants to be a cop in Ed McBain’s 87th precinct, there’s Roberts who relates to the heroes of film noir, and vicious thug Kevin’s emulation of Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. On that note, here’s a free tip: want to know what someone really thinks?… ask ‘em who their heroes are before you take them home to meet mother.

 I read a lot of crime, and sometimes when you read a lot of one particular genre, books blend into each other and the characters and story threads blur: missing teenage girls who walked away from a party and never came back, alcoholic policemen who turn up disheveled and red-eyed for roll-call, the detective who must beat the clock before a sicko-serial killer offs his next squirming teenage captive…. well you get my drift. A White Arrest crackles with originality and delivers sordid details of those on both sides of the fence–Brant is a flawed morally reprehensible human being whose, let’s say, unconventional approaches to crime solution leave a lot to be desired, but he is also at the same time a very unique and very real creation. Brant does awful things to people he deems weaker than himself, but even so there is some sort of moral line he won’t cross. To those who work with Brant, that moral line may seem non-existent, but it’s there nonetheless. Brant with his gleefully nasty larger-than-life-in-your-face-and fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it personality is someone I want to read about. Ken Bruen added just enough tiny details to Brant’s character to salvage him from a total wipe-out to someone who has a few deeply hidden human traits that are rarely shown to those within the department. Highly recommended for those who like their crime dirty, dark  and hard-boiled with just the right touch of black humour.

For those interested, to date there are seven novels in the Brant series.

Review copy

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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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