Little did I realize when I picked up my first Ken Bruen book, The Guards, back in the middle of April that I was going to have read three others of his by the middle of July. But that's exactly what has happened. Initially I was fascinated by the way that Bruen paid homage to many of my favorite American Noir writers of the past by using a writing style so similar to theirs and by including quotes from many of them in his books. But after reading another Jack Taylor story in Bruen's Calibre I started to wonder if too much of a good thing was going to grow a bit old. As I was soon to learn, there was no need to worry about that because Bruen lightened up on all the direct references to those writers of the forties and fifties and really hit his stride with the next Taylor novel, The Dramatist. Now, with Priest, Bruen has placed himself solidly on the watch list I keep to make sure that I don't miss any new work of certain writers.
Fans of Bruen's Jack Taylor novels will probably notice that I didn't mention The Magdalen Martyrs, an earlier book in the series. I almost always read "series fiction" in the order in which it is written but I somehow missed that one when its turn came. But it is on my shelves waiting for me now.
The beginning of Priest finds Jack Taylor confined to the mental hospital he ended up in as a result of the shocking tragedy that ended The Dramatist. Having lost all will to live, and preferring to drink himself to death, Jack still somehow managed to stay away from the booze before being locked up for his own good. Now he is being released just in time to find that his old friends have not fared well during his five months in the institution and that he barely recognizes the Ireland in which he lives. Taylor realizes that things in Galway have taken a particularly nasty turn when he hears that a priest has been beheaded inside his confessional booth.
Desperately needing something to keep his mind off of the events that placed him in the mental institution, Taylor reluctantly agrees to look into this murder at the request of Father Malachy, an old friend of his mother's. What he finds out about the dead priest's history of sexual abuse going back to the sixties, and how it was covered up, does not surprise him in the least as he tries to identify the killer. But Jack's life is never that simple. Along the way, he takes on a young, eager partner who needs a father figure as badly as Jack needs someone to take care of, a match not exactly made in heaven but one which Jack comes to accept. Their new relationship is severely tested when Jack is asked by an old friend to find and stop the stalker who is threatening her.
As is always the case in his Jack Taylor novels, Ken Bruen surrounds his basic story with the devastating portrait of what it must be like to walk in the shoes of an alcoholic who is always one drink away from losing control of his life. Jack is well aware of his problem and is forced to avoid his old friends and neighborhoods because everyone he meets seems to be heading to a pub and would be happy to have Jack join them in an exchange of rounds. His struggle to remain sober takes on an almost heroic nature and is painful to watch. Despite his self-control problems and his tendency to solve problems with the use of violence, be it verbal or physical, Jack Taylor is a hard man not to like. He loves the music of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and is a dedicated reader of relatively obscure American authors who are little appreciated even in their own country. Despite all of his troubles, his personal library somehow seems to survive and he is such a book collector that bookstore owners give him first crack at books they know he will appreciate. What's not to like about a man like that?
Readers will find that a Jack Bruen novel does not wind down in the manner of most detective or crime fiction. Bruen doesn't rely on a recap of previous events to provide him with an easy ending for his books and, in fact, some of his hardest punches to the reader's gut come just when it appears that all the story has been told. Ken Bruen has carved out a worthy spot for himself among all those authors he so admires.
Rated at: 4.0