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.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Guards by Ken Bruen

  1. Maxine – Thanks for this terrific review (as ever). This one certainly doesn’t sound “typical” at all in terms of either a crime novel or even a character study. I can see how that’s exactly what gets the reader involved, though: it’s not stereotypical. And I have to say I have a weakness for good writing style :-). Hmmm….

  2. I decided to start this series at book 4 but it sounds like the same things are present from the outset. I’m looking forward to reading more of these and trying out some of his other stuff (the man seems to be prolific). I think I’ll be skipping the TV movie as from what I’ve seen they’ve chosen an actor who couldn’t be more than about 30 which just seems all wrong.

  3. I think Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels are the best crime fiction being written today. I learned about them from another person’s blog. It is good to see them mentioned here.

  4. It sounds like a good book and one I’ll add to my TBR list. I wish that it didn’t have the stereotypical Irish alcoholic scenario, but it sounds worth reading in spite of that. I appreciate the review.

  5. Thanks, everyone. I am not partial to books about alcoholics but I did like this one. However if he keeps on being a really extreme drunk then I don’t know how long I’ll stand it for in future books! I feel quite confident though, as so many readers recommend him.

  6. So glad you enjoyed The Guards! Awesome. Jack Taylor is an interesting protagonist. The books get better and I hope you read more.

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