Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Ken Bruen-The Magdalen Martyrs & Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice

Martial arts film star Bruce Lee used to demonstrate what he called the "Three Inch Punch." He'd hold his fist a mere three inches away from his target, yet when he struck from that absurdly short range, he put so much power behind the strike that he could propel a man across the room and shatter his ribs in the process.

Ken Bruen's books are like that: short, yet powerful and brutally effective. The Magdalen Martyrs is the third in Bruen's series of novels about Irish Private Eye Jack Taylor. In The Guards, the series' first book, Taylor stumbled into the PI biz after being dismissed from the Garda, Ireland's police force, for drunkeness. As you may imagine, this took some doing. In the second Taylor adventure, The Killing of the Tinkers, Taylor's bad luck and his own flaws nearly did him in. Now, down on his luck after the fiasco of his last case, he's given an assignment by Bill Cassell, a truly terrifying Galway gangster: find the woman who saved Cassell's mother from Ireland's notorious Magdalen Asylums. It's an offer Taylor literally can't refuse. And of course, this being classic noir, nothing is as it seems.

A lot of fictional PI's hit the bottle, and hit it hard. The difference is that Bruen is unsparing in his description of exactly what that would mean in real life. Taylor's (usually losing) battles with alcohol and drug addiction as he tries to solve the mystery dropped in his lap are rendered in a voice that paradoxically manages to be both merciless in its descriptive power and compassionate in its characterization. And it's all told in Bruen's distinctive prose: taut and spare, but woven with darkly humorous Irish poetry.

Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice
is an even shorter work, but there's a lot of story packed into those 120-odd pages. Cooper, an English ex-con, successful repo man, and sometime bank robber, hooks up with Cassie, an American shoplifter who is obsessed with the poetry of Irish writer Louis MacNeice. Cassie is beautiful, captivating, and barking mad. She's a big ball of chaos rolling through the landscape of urban London, and she keeps popping up in Cooper's carefully ordered criminal life at random intervals...or are they so random after all?

The Magdalen Martyrs
and Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice are dark and gritty, classic examples of the best of crime fiction from across the Atlantic. One warning, though: as Brad Pitt told Harrison Ford in the movie The Devil's Own: "It's not an American story. It's an Irish one. Don't look for a happy ending."


Anonymous said...

What about Bruce's 1 inch punch? I guess that would describe Nicholas Sparks' books.

Wait. What?

Forget it. Welcome the the Blogosphere. It's like a swirling, sucking etty of despair. Filled with small moments of false satisfaction in an ever-blackening universe.

JD Rhoades said...

Was it one inch? I always thought it was three...that's how it was taught to me in karate class...ah, well.

Anonymous said...

He had both. He had the 3-inch, and the 1-inch.

I was lucky enough to see video of him do it at Ed Parker's Long Beach tourney/exhibition back in the late 60's. It looked like a special effect.

The 3-inch literally hit the victim with enough force that it knocked him across the mat, into another guy and they both hit the ground.

The 1-inch staggered a guy who was about twice the size of Bruce.