Wednesday, April 14, 2010

THE GUARDS - Ken Bruen

FIRST LINE: It's almost impossible to be thrown out of the Garda Siochana.

Jack Taylor is a former garda in Galway, Ireland. When he was ousted for his excessively alcoholic ways, he took up private detecting. Or rather, he started to "find things" because
"There are no private eyes in Ireland. The Irish wouldn't wear it. The concept brushes perilously close to the hated 'informer.' You can get away with most anything except 'telling.'"
In THE GUARDS, Taylor is called on to "find" the truth about a teen girl's suicide. Her mother, Ann, doesn't believe she would commit suicide and there has been an unusual number of suicides. All teen girls. All from drowning. Taylor tells Ann he can't make any promises, but he sets off to see what he can find. In his investigation he finds more than information on Sarah's death, he finds out about himself, about his friends, and about life in general.

I'm sure you've all experienced those books where you finish, close the book, sit back and think "Wow" simply because nothing else seems to come close to expressing the chaos of what you feel. That's what happened to me with THE GUARDS. Ken Bruen manages to yank on your heart while simultaneously tickling your funny bone. You don't really WANT to like the drunk, crass Taylor, but the kind genuine heart underneath won't give you a choice.

Bruen's writing style echos the sparseness of the land and its people. It also heightens Taylor's drinking episodes so that you're almost going through them yourself. Then when Taylor's struggling to stay away from the alcohol, you're struggling right along with him. Taylor's fighting to find his way, find where he belongs, but he's doesn't seem to have one place and he's constantly wandering to find it.

Combine that style with the richness of Bruen's content and there's no wonder at all why Bruen is one of Ireland's greatest writers today. Throughout THE GUARDS Taylor receives notices concerning a coat he was issued while a garda. He has neglected to return the coat and so continues to receive these notices. The coat and Taylor's actions in regards to the coat symbolize who Taylor is and what he is experiencing. Taylor doesn't play by the rules, but more by necessity than by choice. He's aware he's doing wrong but he doesn't do so belligerently; he does it to protect himself and survive.

The coat is just one small snippet of the richness of this novel. The huge insights that Bruen imparts with minimal words often left me speechless altogether:
"Sometimes, though, when people reveal a piece, they don't want an answer, just a receiver."
"My time in Ballinasloe, I thought of a hundred things. Most of a depressive nature. The roads not less travelled but blindly staggered upon. People who'd been kind to me and I had abused so very badly."
And Bruen's humor, while dark - this is afterall noir - is unmatched. I often found myself thinking, "I shouldn't be laughing, but gosh darn this is hysterical." And it isn't complex jokes. It's subtle nuances and turns of phrase. It's situational. Things you would think in your head sarcastically, Taylor belts out, full speed ahead:
"If you don't laugh at least once in the asylum, time to up the medicine."
If THE GUARDS isn't plenty of medicine for you, there may not be hope. Choosing one word to describe the THE GUARDS and wrap this review, it would have to be: sublime.

THE GUARDS was the recipient of a Shamus Award and is available in the United States from St. Martin's Minotaur in trade paper (ISBN: 978-0-312-32027-0).

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le0pard13 April 14, 2010 at 5:36 PM  

Great review, Jen. This book was my introduction to Ken Bruen (and to his Jack Taylor series), and a mighty fine one it is. For those that are interested, it is out on audiobook (and over on Gerry O'Brien performed the narration splendidly. Thanks for this, Jen.

Naomi Johnson April 15, 2010 at 12:46 AM  

And good as The Guards is, the series only gets better.

And I'm still trying to decide if I'll hate you forever for snagging St Ken himself as a guest blogger. :-)

Buster McNamara February 9, 2013 at 1:43 PM  

Taylor hangs onto the Garda coat throughout the series. It's been awhile since I read the Guards, but
I 've enjoy Bruen's snappy dialogue throughout the Taylor & Brant series.
I'm trying to recall if Taylor's mom's favorite priest was introduced in this book.

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