Like many bibliophiles, I suffer from a fear of having nothing at hand to read. I rarely venture out without a book; but if I do get stuck, I can always fall back on the Kindle app on my mobile. So when we went away on our child-free weekend recently, as well as buying a couple of ebooks I also grabbed a copy of Ken Bruen’s The Guards from my local library, just to be on the safe side. Bruen’s an author I’ve heard good things about, and wanted to get into for a while – as The Guards is the first in his series featuring Galway-based private eye Jack Taylor, it seemed like a good place to start.
Funny how those instant, snap decisions have a habit of paying off. The Guards is extraordinarily good – simultaneously lyrical and economical, heart-felt and heartless. Bruen certainly doesn’t mess around, and we know much of Taylor’s background after just three pages – fired from the Garda Siochana, the Irish police-force, for punching a government minister, whilst drunk on a flask of coffee ‘near bulletproof with brandy.’ Taylor’s reliance on alcohol is a recurring theme in this book; it defines him, and is the root cause of much of the trouble that dogs him. The cliche is that the Irish are a nation of happy-go-lucky drinkers, but what this book does is to reveal the dark truths that lie behind the obsessive pursuit of hard liquor.
Sacked from the police, Taylor becomes a private investigator, his previous job leading others to suspect he might have some inside information. ‘A minor reputation began to build on a false premise. Most important of all, I was cheap.‘ In The Guards, Taylor is approached by the mother of a teenage suicide, and asked to investigate her daughter’s death. The investigation itself is not complex – but its consequences resonate through the whole novel, and have far-reaching implications not just for Taylor, but also those closest to him.
Taylor is a wonderful creation, a complex and multi-faceted character. He is no one-dimensional drunk; he is an avid reader, and one of the pleasures of the book was in noting down other authors to follow up (I’ve just borrowed a copy of John Sandford’s Bad Blood from my local library, and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for anything by J.M. O’Neill). There’s a terrific chapter on Taylor’s own love of books, and why they are so important to him. They cast light on his relationship with his father, whose recent death and Taylor’s grief underlie the ease with which he crawls into the bottom of a pint glass. The warmth with which Taylor describes his father is in stark contrast to the novel’s climax, which is shocking, brutal and inevitable, and wholly in keeping with what has gone before.
Alongside this hard edge, there’s also a dark wit running through the novel, with Taylor frequently reflecting on his own precarious place in the world. ‘I don’t do sun,’ he says at one point, regarding a rare bout of good weather. ‘I’m delighted with the lack of rain and anything over is over-indulgence. I don’t trust it. Makes you yearn. For things that cannot last.‘ For a brief while, the possibility of escape for Taylor is a very real option, with a fresh start in London beckoning. But as he suspects, such things are illusory; by the end of the novel, the escape hatch is slammed firmly shut, and any chance of redemption for Taylor is a distant memory.
Which is terrible news for him, but not for the reader. The Guards is a terrific piece of work, and I’m already looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Killing of the Tinkers. Heaven knows what Bruen has in store for Taylor, but I’ve a strong suspicion it isn’t good.