John Connolly has long used supernatural elements in his crime novels, and last year Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE employed the device of an ex-paramilitary killer haunted by the ghosts of his victims. Where both writers have tended to leave it to the reader to judge whether their protagonists are bedevilled by manifestations of evil or a tortured conscience, Ken Bruen has taken a more literal approach in his latest novel, when his series private eye, Jack Taylor, confronts the Devil himself.
Galway private detective Taylor has appeared in seven previous novels, making his debut in THE GUARDS (2001). A casual glance suggests that he is a conventional genre creation, a tarnished white knight tormented by past failures, his addiction to alcohol and the spectres of those he has been unable to help. On closer inspection, Taylor reveals himself as unique. Most literary private eyes are bent on parsing the culture they spring from, examining society through the prism of their own morality in the guise of investigating a particular case. If this conceit represents a literary fourth wall, however, Bruen’s post-modernist approach has long since blown it down. Even events as serious as murder happen at the periphery of a Jack Taylor narrative, in which everything that happens is subordinate to the needs of Taylor himself.
THE DEVIL opens with Taylor at Shannon Airport being refused entry into America by Homeland Security. Back home in Galway, he is approached by the mother of a student who has gone missing. Can Jack find the boy? He can’t, as the lad turns up a few days later horribly mutilated, with a dog’s head thrust into his entrails. Rumour suggests that the student was heavily influenced by the malign Carl, who bears a strong resemblance to a Kurt whom Taylor met at Shannon Airport. Soon Taylor has met Carl, and comes to believe that the man is Satan incarnate. As more young people die, Taylor resolves on a showdown that will rid the world of evil.
This is, on the face of it, a preposterously implausible storyline, yet readers would do well to bear in mind that Bruen is a multiple prize-winning author in the US, Germany and France, and that he holds a doctorate in metaphysics. The fact that Taylor embarks on a Jameson-and-Xanax binge after being refused entry to the US may also be a factor in the narrative, which grows progressively more outrageous as Taylor indulges in his indefatigable nemesis, the demon drink.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the backdrop to THE DEVIL is that of a country in the throes of economic downturn, and the havoc the recession has wreaked on individual lives. Time and again Taylor refers to the inequality of the suffering, sketching out the devastation in a line or two of his trademark spare style. The crucial line arrives when Taylor asks his friend Vinny if he believes in the Devil. “Look at the state of the country,” answers Vinny, “and whoever is stalking the land - it ain’t God.”
Bruen gives himself a get-out clause with the implicit suggestion that Taylor’s peculiar brand of self-loathing narcissism, fuelled on drink and drugs, has conjured up the ultimate foe. That said, the novel dares the reader to seriously the notion that evil isn’t just the absence of empathy, as John Connolly recently claimed, but a tangible entity bent on persecution. Told in bright, broad and luridly cheerful strokes, the novel lacks the kind of subtlety to be expected from a doctor of metaphysics. By the same token, Bruen’s radical reimagining of the private eye genre has long earned him the right to challenge our perceptions of how a story can or should be told. - Declan Burke
This review was first published as an Irish Times ‘Book of the Day’ pick.
“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.