“The Guards – Jack Taylor #1” by Ken Bruen

The lyrical prose and the perfect Galway patter were seductive but in the end, I couldn’t find it in me to like this drunk with a habit of violence and a passion for books

I’d heard good things about the Jack Taylor series. They made a TV series about it so I thought, it can’t be all bad if it’s been on the tele now, can it?

“The Guards” starts well enough. The style is a kind of Nineties Philip Marlowe, if Marlowe had been an alcoholic from Galway who was well-read, didn’t think much of himself or anyone else, constantly took the piss out of himself and was pretty hopeless at investigating things.

Jack Taylor’s main achievements in life so far have been drinking and getting himself thrown out of the Garda (although not for drinking).

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gerry O’Brien, and found myself enjoying listening to Jack’s self-mocking description of his first case as an unlicensed PI investigating the suicide of a teenage girl.

Let me share the close of chapter one with you. It’ll give you the flavour of the thing. Jack is on his way home from too many glasses of Back Bush to recall and has stopped to pick up some chips, with a cod thrown in to make it seem more substantial.:

Is there anything more comforting than doused in vinegar chips? The smell is like the childhood you never had.

As I approached my flat, I was in artificial contentment. Turning to my door, the first blow caught me on the neck. Then a kick to the cobblers. For mad reasons, I hung on to the chips. Two men, two big men, they gave me a highly professional hiding. A mix of kicks and punches that came with the rhythm of precision. Without malice but with absolute dedication. I felt my nose break. Would swear it made a crunch sound,

One of them said, “Get his hand. Spread the fingers.” I fought that. Then my fingers were splayed on the road. It felt cold and wet. Twice the shoe came down. I roared for all I was worth. They were done. The other said, “Won’t be playing with himself for a bit.” A voice close to my ear, “Keep your nose out of other people’s business.”

I wanted to cry, “Call the Guards”, as they headed off. I tried to say, “Buy your own chips!” but my mouth was full of blood.

I thought that was wonderful.

Sadly, Jack turned out to be the kind of man you sometimes meet, usually while consuming alcohol in a public place, who at first seems both charming and wise. His voice is soft, his bright verbal plumage is borrowed from the finest writers and he’s happy to share the wisdom that his suffering has won him. By the fourth or fifth pint, the shine wears off, the borrowed feathers moult and you start to see that the charm is there to hide a man addicted to drink and prone to violence who knows in his heart that he’s broken.

If your response to such a man is, “Well he is who is and he could be worse. Good luck to him.” then I think you’ll be reading the whole series. If, like me, you cannot find it in yourself to like this self-harming drunk with a habit for violence, then you’ll be stopping after the first book.

The book itself is not so much about solving a crime as about seeing the kind of man Jack is, the kind of man he might be if he were able to stay sober and to understand the childhood that produced such flawed potential.

It’s many decades since I last spent any time in Galway but Ken Bruen seems to me to present a credible version of the place and its people and that alone is reason enough to read the first book.

Decide for yourself. Click on the SoundCloud link below and let Gerry O’Brien cast Ken Bruen’s spell over you.

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