Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Busted Flush Press, 2006, $18

Collection includes:
Funeral: tales of Irish Morbidities
Shades of Grace
Sherry and Other Stories
All the Old Songs and Nothing To Lose
The Time of Serena May and Upon the Third Cross

As Allan Guthrie points out in his heartfelt introduction to this collection of early fiction by Ken Bruen:

"[they] have been much sought after in the last few years, and they've been virtually impossible to find"

Which is why those who worship the work of Ken Bruen (and there are many) will probably not even bother reading the reviews. They'll be out there, seeking to discover the roots of the man who would later bring them the relentless noir poetry of

Her Last Call to Louis MacNiece
The Hackman Blues
Priest (which, of course, shares a title with one of the tales in this Sherry)

Of course, there'd be no point in a review that said:

If you love Ken Bruen
Buy this book

So, if you'll permit the indulgence, I'd like to explore a little of my reaction to this collection.

What's interesting about the novels in this early collection is how well formed Bruen's personal style was right from the start. Even in his first published novel, Funeral, we find lists, fragmented dialogue, cultural references and bursts of prose that say in two words what it takes others maybe twenty or more to get out. There's manipulation of grammar, language and even the positioning of type on the page to occasionally puzzling and more often intriguing effect.

What is even more intriguing is that Bruen isn't neccasarily writing crime stories here. At least not the kind of crime stories one might expect. There are elements that will make their way into his later work but, with Funeral in particular, the stories tend not to be fuelled explcitly by lawlessness or violence. But its clear to see why Bruen moved towards the crime thriller as his chosen method of expression. The marriage of action and insight he has brought to crime has enriched the genre greatly, and here that insight is shown in sharp focus, made

Funeral, is as an odd start to the collection, even if its chronoligically the beginning of our journey through Bruen's early work. The tale can be heavy going, and at times feel meandering, as though somehow the reader is missing the point. There is a sense of depth to the narrative, but its hard to see just where those depths go. The typically clipped Bruen style, while present, is less focussed than in later stories and the average reader may be left scratching their head just a little, feeling that something important just passed them by. The style and the prose are excellent and despite this reviewers misgvings about the whole, its in little viginettes and moments that the story becomes most effective.

By the time of Martyrs, however, its clear that Bruen has found his feet. Martyrs is noir - not neccasarily crime, although the elements of the genre are clearer here, and there is less of an episodic and incidental feel to the narrative. Indeed, from here on in the collection grows in strength and appeal reflecting, one assumes, Bruen's growth in confidence and ability as a writer. The collection of short stories, Sherry and Other Stories may perhaps lose some readers, but if you take these works as more portraits of moments than narrative stories, they become all the more wonderful for all that. And naturally, they include some typically skewed moments of observation that can veer from the horrific to the amusing and often end up on both.

The highlight of the collection, for this reviewer anyway, is the wonderfully punchy and bleakly funny All the Old Songs and Nothing to Lose which finds the London underworld being tragetted by a self-styled vigilante. This particular story marries a punchy structure and focus with Bruen's typical obsessions and idiosyncratic style. Of all the stories in the collection, this is perhaps one of the strongest indications of what would imbue Bruen's vision upon a more narrative led audience in the world of crime fiction. Perhaps one could argue that in comparison to other stories in the collection its narrative throughline is a bit simplistic, but in this case that simplicity is made all the powerful by the simple fact that it clicks so well with every other element in the work.

And of all the stories, the biggest surprise comes in The Time of Serena May a heartfelt tale about the birth of a girl with mild Downs Syndrome; a frank and honest piece that ultimately seems to tell us


Which is the perfect, and ultimately touching, way to end a collection of work by a writer who, like James Ellroy, can often leave you feeling exhuasted and drained with his noiresque and downbeat worldview.

This, of course, is a quality to be admired.

While I have touched on those stories that brought out the strongest emotions in me, there is a lot to explore in this collection. Like most "early works" anthologies, A Fifth of Bruen will likely appeal strongest to the completists and big fans. Casual admirers of Bruen's later work, while appreciative of the style, may find themselves bemused by the near literary nature of some of the tales: the half-glimpsed moments and fraught emotions that come not from exterior action but interior turmoil and that, at times, feel laid bare with little explanation, requiring a great deal of work on the reader's part to read between the lines and create their own understanding.

But even for the casual reader there are many gems to be found here, and perhaps the collection may even persuade those of a more naturally literary bent to seek out Bruen's genre novels. After all, as one traces Bruen's obsessions and rhythms through the mad noir poetry that has become his trademark, its interesting to see the narratives that gave birth to one of the most complex, unique and exciting writers in modern crime fiction.

If you enjoy complex, thought-provoking work tinged with aspects of noir even without the neccesarily criminal aspect, then you'll find something in this collection to intrigue you. If you love Bruen, there's no doubt, you'll already have cracked the spine.

Russel D McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, August 01, 2006