Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Guards

I've read dozens of hardcore crime and detective novels over the years, but Ken Bruen's The Guards stands out as one of the most unusual of the lot. I recently became aware of Ken Bruen, who lives in Galway, Ireland, and set this novel there, when I read The Triumph of the Thriller earlier this month. Bruen was listed as one of the best crime writers working in Europe today and The Guards was mentioned as a particularly good place to start reading him.

Jack Taylor, the novel's narrator, is a former member of the Garda Siochana, Ireland's police force, who has attained somewhat of a local reputation for being good at "finding things." He is the closest thing to a private detective that a highly suspicious Irish society will trust to even a small degree. Unfortunately for Taylor, one of the things that he is best at finding is his next bottle of booze and he spends a substantial portion of his waking hours in a less than sober state. Taylor's reputation as a "finder" results in a young woman asking him to investigate the supposed suicide of her daughter and what he learns in the process will forever change his life.

On the surface, Jack Taylor is little different from many of genre's most popular detectives. He is an alcoholic fighting to stay sober in a world that every day confronts him with readily available booze, a man with a history of failed relationships, one handy with sarcasm and wit even when in danger.

But two things make The Guards different from the bulk of crime fiction being written today, the first being Bruen's writing style. The novel's prose is sparse, relying on short scene after short scene to move the plot along rather than on surrounding action scenes with the details of an intricate plot. Each scene is presented through the eyes of Jack Taylor and the reader's sense of what is happening is limited to only what Taylor sees or remembers from his own past. Bruen doesn't always hold himself to standard punctuation and is very fond of producing lists in place of simple sentences. For example,
"My clothes were




at the end of the bed."
Too, many of the scenes are preceded by one of the author's favorite quotations from the works of other crime writers such as Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Ed McBain and George P. Pelecanos.

The second thing that makes this novel so unusual is how unimportant the plot really turns out to be in the long run. This novel is more about character development and the relationships of the characters than it is about the investigation that Taylor undertakes on behalf of the grieving mother. And it works beautifully. Jack Taylor is an unforgettable character who takes his rightful place among the Spencers, Robicheauxs, Spades and Marlowes of the literary world.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. That's definitely a unique way of writing a list. I find myself drawn to authors that don't write in a "normal" style. Makes things interesting.

  2. Matt, Bruen's style took me a few pages to get comfortable with but, by the end of the book, his style was really fun. I'm going to find another of his books soon so that I'll have something with which to compare this one. I don't know yet if the style shown in "The Guards" was an exception for him or if it is common to his other books.

  3. Placed this one on hold for my hubby. He loves Leonard, Mosley, McBain, & Pelecanos so it should be a slam-dunk. ;)

  4. If you like unconventional writing formats, try "House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski. Whew, if it doesn't make your head hurt, you might like it.

  5. There must be something about cops & booze :). One of my fave cops series is Inspector Rebus by Ian Rankin; Rebus also likes a drop of the hard stuff.


    Sam, check this out...a list of what people who work in Waterstones read.

  6. Maggie, I think that he'll enjoy the book and be taken with the main character's personality. I haven't mentioned the ending of the book...and won't give it away...but it was a bit unusual and surprising. I'm really looking forward to reading more from Bruen.

  7. Anne, I'll take a look at that one. I'm not familiar with it but maybe my county library system can find me a copy. Thanks.

  8. Booze and hard-boiled detectives is a combination I expect. That seems to go back all the way to the early masters of the genre.

    I've finally read one Ian Rankin book, Nick, and I've accumulated three others that are on my TBR list. It's interesting to see how much longer his recent books are than his early works.