Book Review: The Guards by Ken Bruen

Kb_guards The Guards
By Ken Bruen
Brandon, 2001 (reprinted 2010).

For a long time I have been planning to read Ken Bruen, a highly regarded writer, and have finally made good my intention in the shape of The Guards, the first novel in a series about Jack Taylor. Taylor is in his mid-50s and has just been sacked from the Garda after many years of warnings. He’s been told he is good at finding things, so he sets himself up as a private eye in Galway, Ireland. He’s also a complete drunk, which fits this stereotypical bill (his “office” is a pub).

The Guards is a very good book indeed. The plot is ostensibly about the unexplained suicide of several young teenage girls whose bodies are found washed up in the sea at Nimmo’s pier.  The mother of one of these girls is certain her daughter did not kill herself, and asks Taylor to find out how the girl died.  Taylor’s only friend (by his own admission), the sinister artist Sutton, has his own ideas about how to find out what’s going on, and Taylor is almost a passive partner in the ensuing “investigation”.

Really, though, the investigative aspects are perfunctory at best, and the true subject of the book is Taylor himself – his past, his feelings, convictions, and how he has come to the end of the line. As well as Sutton, Taylor interacts with other vividly sketched people during the novel – Cathy B, a singer whom Taylor pays to help him find out information; the aged barman Sean; Ann, the dead girl’s mother; and various other characters from the street and from the old, traditional days which Taylor inhabits in his mind.  Taylor is not an obviously sympathetic person – and someone's alcoholism  isn’t intrinsically an interesting subject to read about (how many different ways can someone fall off the wagon and get on it again?). Yet the author has two great things going for him: he’s a very good writer, using various stylistic forms, poetry, wit and quotations to weave a mesmeric whole; and Taylor is a metaphor for all that is tough about life’s essential condition – the grinding boredom of work, the easy distractions of the shallow existence, the inevitability of death, and so on. This having been said, Taylor is not a construct but a warm human being, showing integrity and commitment to people who he likes (even when they are winos and other of life's dropouts). Throughout the book, Taylor has the idea of “escaping” his past and his fate and moving to London. He even buys a ticket – which, of course, he is told by the travel agent can only be one-way. I wonder if he will ever get there. 

I was immersed in this book and particularly responded to the observations of life in the city and the sense of the protagonist's separateness from the mainstream (to which he is tied by the symbol of a coat) – a staple of literature as well as popular fiction, and extremely well done here. As a crime story the novel is not that good – there isn’t any detection or suspense or even much of a puzzle element. But the novel is both emotionally honest and true to itself, and achieves something that is very difficult to do – creates a sympathetic portrait of a weak man who has chosen not to take the paths offered to him in his youth by his father and other mentors, but has become a washed-up drunk. I could quibble at the way details of every-day life are skated-over in the novel (where does the rent come from, for example?), but I won’t because I can certainly admit to being a convert to Ken Bruen on the basis of this novel.


I purchased my paperback edition of this novel.

I have been encouraged for some years to read Ken Bruen by Norman of Crime Scraps (primarily) and several others including consistent recommendations by Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays, and most recently by Keishon of Yet Another Crime Fiction blog. Thanks to them for the recommendation.

Read other reviews of The Guards at: The Book Bag, Jen's Book Thoughts, Critical Mick, Allan Guthrie's Noir Originals (review by Charlie Stella)

Ken Bruen's books at the publisher's website.

The Guards at the author's website. (Includes plot summary, reviews and an extract.)

Shots ezine appreciation of Ken Bruen by Ali Karim.

The Guardian: Interview with the author in 2001, just after the book came out. 

Crimespree cinema: about The Guards TV movie, including trailer.

New UK paperbacks for February 2011

Three seconds Three seconds With the first snowdrops will come ever-more books – for those of us in the UK or able to buy UK paperbacks, quite a selection will be available, according to The Bookseller (22 October issue). On the translated front, Three Seconds by Roslund and Hellstrom (Quercus, £7.99) is one to look forward to – a blistering thriller covering drug dealing, an undercover prisoner, government corruption, police investigations and more. The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell (Vintage, £7.99) seems to be the only other translated crime novel in this listing, and it, too, is Swedish. "Links China and the US in the 1860s with present international issues" states the Bookseller entry – it's also set in Sweden, and has three very strong female characters. 

Other treats in store are Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath (Corvus, £7.99) – another fast-moving thriller, this one set in an Iceland of sagas, folklore and volcanoes. A good holiday read, I'd suggest. Open Season by C. J. Box (also Corvus, £7.99) is the first in the author's Joe Pickett series, well-established in the USA but being published for the first time in paperback in the UK (some have been published as Robert Hale hardbacks previously). Corvus plans to bring out 10 Joe Pickett books between February and November 2011. I haven't tried this series yet.

Tom Bale's follow-up to Skin and Bones, this one called Terror's Reach (Arrow, £6,99) is due out, as is Elena Forbes's Evil in Return (Quercus, £7.99), the third in her London (Barnes)-based DI Mark Tartaglia novel (I have so far only read the first, Die With Me.) One I shan't be reading is The Sword of the Templars by Paul Christopher, about which the Bookseller writes "Penguin believes any book with "Templar" or "Code" in the title scores." (£6.99). Perhaps looking up from that period of history is Jeremy Duns's second novel, Free Country (S&S, £7.99), in which it is 1969 and Cold War territory for agent Paul Dark. (His debut is called Free Agent.) And Stephen Booth has another Fry and Cooper Peak District novel out, Lost River (Harper, £7.99), apparently his last before he moves publisher (to Little, Brown).

Among the predicted top sellers and blockbusters are Caught by Harlan Coben (Orion, £7.99), which I enjoyed; Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan, £7.99), a George George series in which I am woefully behind; This Body of Death by Elizabeth George (Harper, £7.99) and The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus, £7.99), the eleventh outing for Mma Precious Ramotswe. 

These aren't the only books due out in the UK in February. I keep spotting interesting ones, for example Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson (Faber, £7.99), third in the series that started with An Expert in Murder,  in which Josephine Tey researches two women who were hanged for murder. On that topic, and last for this post, is The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley (Orion, £7.99), "the second in the Christie-esque country house murder series featuring precocious 11-year-old sleuth Flavia. They really are charmingly silly books and Orion is having trouble getting the right look – hence the delay."  This is not to mention new paperbacks from Faye Kellerman, Louise Penny, Beverly Barton, Quintin Jardine, Lindsey Davis, Andrew Taylor…. the list seems endless, and that's just February paperbacks!