There aren’t many characters in literature who scare me, but Jack Taylor is one of them. I was blown away by The Guards, Bruen’s first book in this series, and one which has all the queasy inevitability of a Greek tragedy (you can read what I though of it here). And I’m now pleased (okay, maybe pleased isn’t quite the right word…) to report that the second Jack Taylor book, The Killing of the Tinkers, is equally gruelling. Steer clear if you’d feeling fragile.
The Guards ended with ex-Gardai and private investigator Taylor leaving Ireland for London, his exile an escape from the ruins of his last case. But as Taylor concedes at the beginning of Tinkers, ‘there’s nothing more lethal than an alcoholic with a plan… The reality was as close to nightmare as you get.‘ The escape is short-lived; as Tinkers begins, Taylor is returning with little more than a leather coat and a cocaine habit. As the novel progresses, we learn more about Taylor’s time in London, and exactly what he is now running from.
Back in his native Galway, it’s not long before Taylor is asked to investigate the deaths of several young traveller men, and finds himself increasingly drawn into the community. As in The Guards, the investigation is not drawn-out; what complicates it is Taylor’s erratic behaviour and single-minded pursuit of a suspect, both of which bring about the shocking (but not unforeseen) conclusion to the book.
Taylor remains a compelling character, but in Tinkers it’s increasingly difficult to call him likeable. He is a bundle of contradictions – tortured, literate, sentimental and hard-nosed. His continuing addictions also ensure that Taylor’s life continues to swing between binges and blackouts. There are brief periods of abstinence, but these are arguably worse because you know they cannot last. Like that sickening feeling you get as the rollercoaster begins rising up the slope, because the stomach-wrenching drop on the other side is inescapable. The only question is who Taylor takes with him when he falls, and the damage they sustain on the way down.
What turns Taylor into a truly tragic figure is his painful self-awareness. There’s an intense loneliness that surrounds him, isolated by his addictions. ‘My nature is essentially selfish, and to participate in family life you have to make room for others… I wanted to be able to get drunk when I wanted and read till dawn if I wanted and wasn’t able to make the jump to forgo such things for the sake of company. And yet, how I yearned to be different. To sit in the warmth of family and just be easy.‘
I felt that The Killing of the Tinkers was marginally less successful than The Guards, perhaps because I was so blown away by the first book – I’ve still never read anything quite like it. But Tinkers maintains its predecessor’s lyricism and poetry, whilst also being ferociously hard-edged. The books are quick reading (I whipped through Tinkers in a couple of days without really trying), but don’t be fooled – their subject matter is dark as pitch, and will stay with you well after you finally close the covers. I’m not sure I can yet face the next book in the series, The Magdalen Martyrs, but like Jack Taylor’s own self-enforced periods of sobriety, I know our estrangement will come to an end before too long.