Bruen, Ken - 'Headstone'
I approached the package as if it were incendiary. My history of such mail was all bad. Took a deep breath and tore it open. Out on to the marble top fell a perfect miniature sculpture. A headstone, the size of a Zippo.
An elderly priest drinks up his Guinness and leaves the pub, pausing outside St Nicholas's church to light a cigarette. With the first drag a series of blows and kicks knocks him to the ground. Three figures stand in his clouding sight and a final kick to his head sends him into a coma. Next day Jack Taylor, ex-Guard, private investigator, alcoholic - is taking the sun. Whilst recovering from a hell-hole of a case he travelled to London and met a woman. They spent some time together, visited Paris, and now she is due to visit him in Galway. Life is looking good. That's what Jack is thinking when Stewart rings him to tell him that Father Malachy is in Intensive Care, unconscious after a dreadful beating. Jack figures that perhaps he should pay the old priest a visit, though Lord knows there is no love lost between them. On this same day, in another part of the city, a young man with Down's syndrome responds to a pretty girl's request for help. But alone in the alleyway he is also brutally beaten. And then his throat is cut. The group is stepping up its game and it has others in its sights.
Ken Bruen is an Irish award-winning writer of crime fiction. The main plot in HEADSTONE, his ninth "Jack Taylor" novel, is set in the city of Galway and involves a twisted, amoral group deciding to eliminate the "weak" and the "misfits". Their symbol is a small replica headstone and Jack Taylor receives one. But Jack has also been called in by a member of "The Brethren", a reform group within the Church. Their treasurer has disappeared with the funds and they would be pleased if Jack could trace him. Of course there is more than adequate payment plus a bonus for a successful outcome. Jack needs the work and he is ready for it now. As Jack pursues his investigations we get a vivid picture of Galway after the fall of the Celtic Tiger and a good slice of Jack's mordant views on priests and the clergy. One can't help wondering just how long this punch-bag of a man can survive, suffering as he does the true consequences of being the vengeance-justice seeking PI so beloved of crime fiction. In this sense Taylor is the "portrait in the attic" for many a fictional crime-fighting Dorian Gray. By the time Jack has made it into this novel he is a scarred and limping alcoholic who is deaf in one ear and HEADSTONE will see to it that he collects yet more physical and mental wounds.
I have not read Bruen before. Why have I not read Bruen before? His writing, the prose itself, is stripped-down, precise, and eloquent. From the first page I can hear Jack's voice. When another character remembers Jack introducing them to crime fiction by starting "at the top" with the works of James Lee Burke, Bruen has me hooked. James Lee Burke is one of my favourite American crime writers and I would sincerely like to read an encounter between Dave Robicheaux and Jack Taylor. Bruen writes in the tradition of American hard-boiled crime fiction and so Jack Taylor is not a reticent, Northern European crime investigator, but belongs to that long line of men who must travel "down the mean streets"; to that American school of cynicism born from disillusionment, those whose incurable idealism or obstinacy forces them to surface for one more course of hard knocks, self medicating with drink and drugs. It's a long, honourable line of characters from Chandler's Marlowe to James Sallis' Lew Griffin, Mosley's Easy Rawlings, Burke's Dave Robicheaux and on. As with most of them, Jack Taylor's card is marked. Certainly in HEADSTONE he appears to be damned if he takes on a job for reward and damned if he takes it on as a favour. All roads seem to lead Taylor to loss, perdition, and a diet of Jameson's and Guinness.
I was knocked out by this book. Bleak and dark, shot through with humour and humanity, written with elegance - HEADSTONE is terrific. I have become a Bruen fan.
Lynn Harvey, England