In his introduction to this collection of early fiction by crime writer Ken Bruen, Allan Guthrie speaks of the “startling speed and unexpectedness of the violence”. He warns readers that they will “..say aloud, ‘What?’ Then re-read the paragraph and say, ‘Jesus, he really did just do that.” I must say I took this with a pinch of salt until I found myself doing exactly that on reading one of the short novels included in this collection.
As the book progresses the levels and suddenness of the violence increase, but it is a violence that is characterised by the almost laconic way in which it is both executed and described. One can almost trace the evolution of Bruen’s later hero, Jack Taylor, in the parade of damaged male characters introduced in these pages. But the men do not have a lien on mayhem, for at least one woman, admittedly variously described as “away with the fairies” and “touched in the head”, has her own neat line in summary justice. But we are also treated to a number of the author’s observations on his fellow-countrymen, two of which had a particular resonance for me: “You can put anything to the Irish except direct questions” and “Being Irish means never having to say you don’t know”.
Bruen’s compelling prose and vividly authentic dialogue invite the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters, and in the short stories the male characters are almost all pathetic losers in some way, even the bully Charles in “Liver”. Men who people the short stories totally misunderstand the women in their lives, live in their own dream worlds and appear bewildered by others’ reactions; and the author has contrived to mock their inadequacies while at the same time eliciting sympathy for their plight. There are also two recurring themes throughout the novels and short stories, the importance of dogs as human comforters, and the male obsession with a receding hairline. I think there is not one description of a male character that does not at some stage refer to the presence or absence of his hair. In “Shades of Grace” Ford admits his hair is thinning rapidly and asks, “How do you fatten hair?” In the first short story Charles is described as “A tall man, his hair was grey and thinning”, Brady in “God Wore Shoes is “almost bald”, while in “Twist of Lemon” we hear that Jack had “brown thinning hair and daily distress at recession”.
Dysfunction and despair permeate all of the stories until the final semi-autobiographical story, “The Time of Serena-May”. This exudes the anger, misunderstanding and unconditional love of Frank and Cathy as they come to terms with the arrival of their daughter, Serena May, who has Down’s Syndrome. The contrasting insensitivity of some professional staff with the gentle caring attitude of others is beautifully conveyed, and the story completes this collection on a note that is positive and full of hope.
This ‘Book of the Month’ review first appeared in The Irish Emigrant
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.