Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ken Bruen's "Priest": Best crime novel of its year and any year?

An online crime-fiction reading group of which I am a member has a monthly feature called "Who Have You Met?" This feature asks group members to choose a character they have met in the current week's reading and to answer a number of questions about him or her. Among these are "What was this person's role in the story?"

Thus, Priest, the fifth of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels, and as perfect a merging of the protagonist's personality with the book's mystery and subplots as any I have ever seen in a just about any novel, crime or otherwise.

If you know Jack Taylor by reputation, you'll want to know that in this novel he has stopped drinking. His drinking and consequent inattention had led to the death of a 3-year-old girl, the only child of Taylor's only remaining friends. Taylor's struggles with the guilt and his facing down of his alcoholism are a stark and heart-rending a challenge as any faced by any fictional hero you'll likely to encounter. They also are the centerpieces of this novel. Believe that he can wage these battles, and you'll believe he can handle the loss, horror, dislocation and mystery that the rest of the story throws at him.

You'll want to know about the book's philosophical epigrams (mostly from Pascal), about its musical references and about Bruen's rueful, acidic commentaries on contemporary Ireland ("Nobody gets shot in Galway ... We are supposedly getting Starbucks soon, so anything is possible, but gunplay, no."). All are just as seamlessly integrated in the story the book tells (the mystery of who has killed a priest who abused children).

A word or two about that mystery: Could any issue be riper for melodrama and easy exploitation that child sexual abuse by priests? That Bruen resorts to neither is an act of narrative magic and supreme authorial self-control. How does he manage this? By keeping the book free of child characters. By avoiding cliché in his treatment of two of the victims who, as adults, play key roles. By steering free of easy consolation, even that offered by killing and death. By including a climactic confrontation, then carrying the drama several steps beyond, Taylor as unsparing of himself as he had been of a nun who knew of the abuse and kept silent. Jack Taylor hates than nun; whatever hatred Ken Bruen may hold for such characters, his compassion for the woman is touching. Bruen has mentioned Zen from time to time. For some reason, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion comes to mind.

And oh, the wit and the satire, made all the sharper by the narrative that surrounds it:

"A looker, with long auburn hair, she had all the confidence of the new Ireland, 100 percent assurance and little ability."
"Maybe my favorite feature are the cannons from the Crimean War. They stand like UN observers, useless and obvious, serving nothing."
Bruen likes to talk about the fans who beg him to go easy on Jack Taylor and let the poor guy have a drink. I'm glad Bruen resisted the temptation, at least for this book. Taylor's struggles with the temptation of alcohol, with the loss of friends and with the changes in the city he loves are the heart of an immensely affecting, sad and funny story, one of the outstanding experiences I have ever had in reading. This book deserves any award it wins.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

Hmm. Taylor sounds like J.A. Jance's J.P. Beaumont and Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder.

You review it well; off to the library website once again!

April 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bruen rules and that is no shite!

April 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comments. I realized as I typed the post that I was making Jack Taylor sound a bit like Scudder, though the Taylor books and the Scudder books that I've read don't really remind of one another. And yes, I remember that Scudder had accidentally killed a child.

Before I read Priest, I had read ten of Bruen's novels, but just one of the Jack Taylor books, Magdalen Martyrs. That book was hard-hitting, but not as good as this. Priest has to be Bruen's best, and not at all shite.

April 22, 2008  

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