BOOK REVIEW: Jack Taylor Confronts a Serial Killer in Ken Bruen’s ‘Purgatory’

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. —   Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)

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The “mean streets” that Jack Taylor — the protagonist and central figure in Ken Bruen’s “Purgatory” (The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, 272 pages, $24.00) — walks are in the picturesque port city of Galway, Ireland, not those  of Los Angeles that Chandler’s Philip Marlowe haunts.Taylor, a private investigator who was dismissed from his job in the Gardai, the Irish national police,  lives in a world far removed from that of Philip Marlowe, but when the surface scab is peeled off, it’s not all that dissimilar.

BOOK REVIEW: Jack Taylor Confronts a Serial Killer in Ken Bruen's 'Purgatory'

Both Taylor and Marlowe are heavy drinkers, with Taylor also being a recovering drug user. Both were fired from their law enforcement jobs: Marlowe working for Bernie Olds in the District Attorney’s office and Taylor being sacked for alleged excessive roughness with a speeding motorist who unfortunately happens to be a high profile politician. Bottom line: Jack Taylor’s Galway and the whole country, even,  is just as corrupt as Marlowe’s Los Angeles.  As “Purgatory” opens, Taylor is recovering from the physical and mental wounds suffered in the very recent past, including the loss of two fingers on his right hand. I’ll have to go back and look into Taylor’s life: This is the first Ken Bruen book I’ve read.

Unlike the deadly serious world of Philip Marlowe, Taylor’s is laced with humor of a particularly Irish flavor, including a plea from a nun, Sister Maeve, to find a 17th Century statue of Our Lady of Galway stolen from a church. Bruen’s — and Taylor’s — Galway is a lot like the Florida of Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry and Edna Buchanan, except of course for its much cooler climate.

With the help of a female Garda, Ridge, and his ex-drug dealer, now zen-master friend, Stewart, Taylor is on the road to what passes for recovery: He’s snagged a dirt cheap but quite nice apartment in the aftermath of the recession driven property bust in what was once the most expensive town in Ireland. Private eyes are frowned upon in snitch-conscious Ireland, but Taylor finds enough work to survive.

Taylor’s life changes drastically when a serial killer begins to target the alleged bad people of Galway, starting with the gunshot slaying in midlflight of Tim Rourke, a sixteen-year-old skateboarder. Unlike more advanced cities in the U.S., which have constructed skateboarding facilities to keep the boarders off the sidewalks and public spaces, the officials of Galway are bent on removing anything skateboarders put up.

Shortly after the spectacular slaying, Taylor receives a letter with a newspaper clip of the youth’s death, who’s accused in “the brutal rape and battery” of two young girls — a letter signed  “C33” and urging, demanding even, that Taylor to join in on the vigilante cleanup of the northwestern Ireland city.

As Taylor begins his search for “C33”, with the help of his friends, into his life comes a mysterious dot-com American billionaire Reardon and his beautiful personal assistant Kelly. Reardon is devoting his efforts to buying up as much of Galway as he can, which perplexes Taylor and just about everybody. What’s the crazy (like a fox?) Yank up to, anyway?

Bruen’s prose may be offputting at first, but when you get used to it, it’s strangely poetic. Bruen uses the automatic weapon’s  staccato burst writing style, lacing it with current event allusions to 2012, including deaths of personalities, the Olympic Games, the American presidential election and the Volvo Offshore boat race, which ended in Galway.Unless you are an expert on Irish games like hurling, a form of field hockey, you’ll be confused by some of Bruen’s references. Jack Taylor’s mutilated right hand isn’t much good for firearms, so he prizes his hurley, the stick used in hurling. Below are sources that explain hurling, the Gardai and Ken Bruen.

Ken Bruen

Ken Bruen

About the author
Ken Bruen, born in Galway in 1951, is the author of “The Guards” (2001), the highly acclaimed first Jack Taylor novel. He spent twenty-five years as an English teacher in Africa, Japan, Southeast Asia and South America. His novel “Her Last Call to Louis Mac Niece” (1997) is in production for Pilgrim Pictures, and his “White Trilogy” has been bought by Channel 4, and The Guards is to be filmed in Ireland by De Facto Films. He has won Two Shamus awards by Private Eye Writers of America for the best detective fiction genre novel of the year for “The Guards” and “The Dramatist”. He has also receivedThe Best series Award in February 2007 for the Jack Taylor novels from The Crime Writers Association.
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An American reading Ken Bruen’s “Purgatory” will need some explanation for  traditional irish games, like hurling, a form of field hockey. In one scene, Jack Taylor is armed with a “hurley.”  See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurling for more about this traditional game.

Ken Bruen is a best-selling author in Ireland and the UK and his Jack Taylor novels have been filmed in an Irish TV series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Taylor_(TV_series)

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