For a long time I have been planning to read Ken Bruen, a highly regarded writer, and have finally made good my intention in the shape of The Guards, the first novel in a series about Jack Taylor. Taylor is in his mid-50s and has just been sacked from the Garda after many years of warnings. He’s been told he is good at finding things, so he sets himself up as a private eye in Galway, Ireland. He’s also a complete drunk, which fits this stereotypical bill (his “office” is a pub).
The Guards is a very good book indeed. The plot is ostensibly about the unexplained suicide of several young teenage girls whose bodies are found washed up in the sea at Nimmo’s pier. The mother of one of these girls is certain her daughter did not kill herself, and asks Taylor to find out how the girl died. Taylor’s only friend (by his own admission), the sinister artist Sutton, has his own ideas about how to find out what’s going on, and Taylor is almost a passive partner in the ensuing “investigation”.
Really, though, the investigative aspects are perfunctory at best, and the true subject of the book is Taylor himself – his past, his feelings, convictions, and how he has come to the end of the line. As well as Sutton, Taylor interacts with other vividly sketched people during the novel – Cathy B, a singer whom Taylor pays to help him find out information; the aged barman Sean; Ann, the dead girl’s mother; and various other characters from the street and from the old, traditional days which Taylor inhabits in his mind. Taylor is not an obviously sympathetic person – and someone's alcoholism isn’t intrinsically an interesting subject to read about (how many different ways can someone fall off the wagon and get on it again?). Yet the author has two great things going for him: he’s a very good writer, using various stylistic forms, poetry, wit and quotations to weave a mesmeric whole; and Taylor is a metaphor for all that is tough about life’s essential condition – the grinding boredom of work, the easy distractions of the shallow existence, the inevitability of death, and so on. This having been said, Taylor is not a construct but a warm human being, showing integrity and commitment to people who he likes (even when they are winos and other of life's dropouts). Throughout the book, Taylor has the idea of “escaping” his past and his fate and moving to London. He even buys a ticket – which, of course, he is told by the travel agent can only be one-way. I wonder if he will ever get there.
I was immersed in this book and particularly responded to the observations of life in the city and the sense of the protagonist's separateness from the mainstream (to which he is tied by the symbol of a coat) – a staple of literature as well as popular fiction, and extremely well done here. As a crime story the novel is not that good – there isn’t any detection or suspense or even much of a puzzle element. But the novel is both emotionally honest and true to itself, and achieves something that is very difficult to do – creates a sympathetic portrait of a weak man who has chosen not to take the paths offered to him in his youth by his father and other mentors, but has become a washed-up drunk. I could quibble at the way details of every-day life are skated-over in the novel (where does the rent come from, for example?), but I won’t because I can certainly admit to being a convert to Ken Bruen on the basis of this novel.