Jack Taylor has to be one of the most miserable Private Investigators in Crime fiction. Everybody he’s ever loved hates his guts or is dead—usually because of him. His native Ireland is coming apart at the seams. His self medication verges on full blown addiction. Heck, he even has a Catholic Priest who hates his guts and never misses a chance to tell him he’s going to hell.
Which is why Jack Taylor is such a good read.
If you haven’t read Bruen’s The Guards, I suggest you go do so. It’s one of the finest P.I. novels I’ve ever read, and where I first met Jack. Taylor is the cop who punched the wrong bureaucrat and got fired from the force. His life is falling apart, he’s self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and that gigantic chip on his shoulder doesn’t making things any easier. He’s the essence of hard-boiled for one reason only: while he may give up on himself, he never gives in. We see him teeter on the edge of the abyss, but we never see him fall. And the only reason he doesn’t fall is one of my favorite—Jack’s a stubborn bastard, and he’s not going to give his enemies that satisfaction.
Now in the realm of first person P.I. novels there’s a lot more than the fact’s ma’am, just the facts. What makes the books work is character. Some protagonists, like Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer, are virtually nonexistent, but their outsider’s viewpoint gives us a wide open reading into the lives of the characters and the society we live in. Other detectives take us into their head, and make us wonder if we could be strong as them. Jack is quickly approaching a third category, that William Christopher Baer territory, where we wonder if he’s going to be able to cross the street.
I have to admit, every once in a while in past books I’d reach a point where I wanted Jack to stop whining and just get on with it. It’s really just impatience on my part, because I already know everybody Jack loves is dead, or he’s dead to them. And, I didn’t get that feeling once in this battle between human and spiritual darkness. Jack’s a bastard, and he carries that weight on his shoulders, and these cases are solved more by his crappy attitude than any great detective work. But it still takes somebody with an outsider’s perspective to solve the case. And Jack’s been on the outside since day one.
The set up is simple. Jack’s about to make his big escape to America, to start his new life, when he’s refused entry. Afterwards in the airport bar (where else?), Jack meets a polite but strange Mr. K. Mr. K’s comments skirt the edges of everything that’s bothering Jack. Is it a coincidence, or does he know too much? Pretty soon we’re left to ask is he just some loopy guy with a funny foreign accent or a stalker? And by the time we figure out he may be a stalker, signs are he’s a hell of a whole lot more.
I hate to give away anything else, because of the way this story is laid out. Each interview, fact, or legend is presented in such a way as to make the reader ask, “Is Mr. K the Devil?”
Well is he?
I congratulate Mr. Bruen for not taking the easy way out.