IN THE pristine minds of the inoffensive middleweights who like to think they dominate Irish literary culture post-Heaney, Ken Bruen is problematic. He writes novels people they describe as ‘ordinary’ like to read, with no higher aim in their devastatingly average minds than pure pleasure.
At his age, Bruen should know that to be taken seriously, by people who probably once lunched with Colm Tóibín, one must establish one’s seriousness by first launching your book at an event that has all the atmosphere of the opening night of a funeral – a sombre reading from the book by its author, accompanied by a plinking harpist of good standing (and some terrible wine to keep the alcoholics ticking over ).
Then, launch done, the serious author will make sure his/her book sells no more than five copies - apart from those flogged to university libraries in the United States - who will buy any book with the word ‘Ireland’ in it, and to those students forced to read such contemporary literary greats because said books somehow wandered on to the syllabus.
In The Emerald Lie (Mysterious Press ), No 12 in Bruen’s popular Jack Taylor series, a graduate of Eton and Cambridge – a kind of deranged Boris Johnson – starts killing people who share one thing in common; they are grammatically challenged, given to splitting infinitives, and speaking in fragments rather than the perfectly constructed sentences this posh psychopath prefers. Some readers of the grammar bible that is Eats, Shoots and Leaves can, at times, get a little fascist, but I doubt even the Fine Gaelers among them would support the death penalty for bad sentence construction.
Ken Bruen may be primarily a crime writer, but his wit often has a satirical knife concealed within. When the second murder happens, a week before the Galway Races, Garda Superintendent Clancy makes clear to his gathered detectives at Mill Street that “The Races mattered; the killings, not so much.”
Taylor, who has long been forcibly retired from the Gardaí, is making his living as a drunk private detective and is persona very non grata with the powers that be at this fictionalised version of our local Garda Station. Yet, as the murders go on, and remain unsolved, Taylor gets drawn back in, in an unofficial capacity, by one of his former colleagues. It is a formula crime writers often use.
What makes this novel is its surreal portrait of Galway’s sad and sordid side. At his best, Bruen is brilliant. Anyone who doubts this should read the paragraph at the start of page 229: “It’s not easy to lose a month. But I had experience. One way or another, I’d been losing bits of myself all my life. In increments, as they say. I began my binge in Garavan’s on Shop Street in Galway and ended up in a dive on Kilburn High Road. Took the scenic route.”
There is a pretty shocking twist at the finish, and before that there is even mention of Joan Burton’s real life detention in her car by the good people of Jobstown. This novel has almost everything.