Sunday, April 01, 2007

CROSS by Ken Bruen

Transworld Publishers, £17.99(hb)/£10.99(pb), ISBN: 978-0593055137

The Jack Taylor novels have a habit of ending with a kick to the gut. The last installment, Priest, was no exception, and now Jack's mourning for his mortally wounded surrogate-son, Cody, who went from being a right pain in the arse to becoming Taylor's stand-in for family.

So it goes in the world of author Bruen, where noir is not just a word but a way of life.

To add to Taylor's troubles, a young lad has been crucfied, dogs are missing from the streets, and people are turning to Galway's premier (and somewhat unnoficial) PI to help them.

This is perhaps one of the strongest plotted of the Taylor novels. With a more traditionally thriller-like premise (Taylor hunting down the crucufix killers) Bruen still manages to achieve the lyrical rhythm that has made the rest of this series so addictive. Taylor is still howling with pain, salved only by books and literature. His relationship with the Garda is as antangonistic as ever and the dance of friendship with female Guard, Ridge, is a back-and-forth of emotional honest and sudden distance.

As strong as the main plot is, its still the personal that drives this novel. The Taylor novels have earned their unique position in crime literature by being more an exploration of character and the sick spirit of an Ireland dragged reluctantly into the modern world. Taylor's reaction to the changing world around him is a need to get out of this place, and its almost ironic that he should consider a plane ticket to America when part of his problem with Galway seems to be the way that it is becoming more American.

But the plot itself is strong and comprises an exploration of the nature of evil. Some people just turn bad, and you don't get worse than the family behind the crucifixion whose self-justification is but a flimsy excuse for the fear that drives some and the dark heart that drives others. Indeed, when Taylor confronts his suspects, it leads to some of the novel's most chilling scenes, and images - sharply, concisely conveyed - that stay with you a long time after the novel is finished.

One just has to wonder how much more punishment Bruen can put on poor Taylor before the man cracks up irretreivably (he's come close before). We can hope for a happy ending, but as the ending of Cross shows - and indeed as we have come to learn from the other Taylor novels - this is a Bruen world. A noir world.

And while we may see the glimmer of hope, we can never know that it is anything more than that.

With writing like Bruen's, of course - punchy, rhythmic, dark and affecting - we wouldn't have it any other way.

Russel McLean for, 02/04/07