Born in 1951 in Galway, Ireland, the city in which he still makes his home, Ken Bruen had his first book published in 1992 and has been extremely prolific since then, producing seven novels in the Jack Taylor series, set in Galway; seven novels about Inspector Brant, set in England; ten stand-alone novels; and five short story collections, as well as uncollected stories. He was the editor of Dublin Noir (2006).
His lean, spare prose places him among the most original stylists in the history of crime fiction. His dark, hopelessly tragic, and violent tales have surprising bursts of absurd humor-moments that more accurately reflect the personality of the author.
Much loved by the mystery community, Bruen has been collecting honors and awards, including a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America for The Guards, which also received Edgar Allan Poe and Macavity award nominations for best novel of the year; and a Macavity for The Killing of the Tinkers, which was also nominated for an Anthony Award as best novel of the year.
I’m always asked in interviews where this odd, grizzled, grumpy PI Taylor came from.
He is the world’s worst detective. Cases get solved not because of him but despite him.
And in very bad shape
And yet… Forster’s famous words.
He gets the job done… somehow, and he so desperately wants to connect, even though he’d never admit it.
Jack does… usually when he least expects to.
His love of books has saved his sanity on so many occasions.
I said on a TV show recently, Jack hasn’t drunk for nigh on three books, and they laughed.
And not a drink.
For them a joke. For Jack, total hell.
And the reviews say Jack is mellowing.
They ain’t seen Cross yet.
He’s only warming up.
He will bow out on the final book… titled… Amen.
And no one can utter those words with quite such conviction as Jack.
When the end comes, and come it will, no one will be happier than Jack.
The Guards… his first outing, he was drinking but still a little in control, and then…
His best friend turns out to be the real psycho and Jack literally drowns him, off Nimmo’s Pier in the Claddagh.
In Galway, an almost mystical place for Irish people… Jack throws a bottle of really good booze in after his friend.
And heads for London.
The UK loves Micks so much.
Need I add it wasn’t a success?
The Killing of the Tinkers.
They told me I couldn’t write this.
My favorite caution.
This will kill your career.
My career has been killed so often, and I’m always told… Oh, my god, you
… and some damn stubborn place in my bedraggled psyche, thought
The Hackman Blues, the second crime novel I wrote (fourth published), I was dropped by my agent, my publisher,
because of it.
You let this be published, you’re gone.
They were right.
I was gone.
As Derek Raymond said,
“I had the down escalator all to meself.”
I continued to write, to teach, and to travel. Brief sojourn to learn Portuguese in a Brazilian jail, which helped the dark vision forming in me head.
I take fierce grief in Ireland from the literati, as I always say my influences are American.
masters and they were and remain thus.
I wrote a series of novels about UK cops, out of more damn cheek than anything else… a Mick writing about UK cops.
Did a stand-alone based on Sunset Boulevard and it sold well, but still I hadn’t hit what it was that was fermenting in me mind, uncoiling like a snake. Did a doctorate in metaphysics and still… the vision hadn’t clarified. I returned to Ireland in 2000 to find a new country.
We’d got rich.
The fook did that happen?
We went from Mass to Microsoft with no preparation, and suddenly, people were immigrating to Ireland!
The village I grew up in had become a cool, trendy European city.
It all came together.
They said there were no Irish crime novels, as we’d no mean streets… With the new prosperity, we’d also got… crack cocaine and all its outriders.
I had me Irish novel; it all jelled.
I grew up fascinated by the Guards… solid, beefy guys who took no shite from anyone, and I’d got a library ticket when I was ten years old, books being forbidden in our house.
My older beloved brother had died of alcoholism.
Write about the Guards.
Back in 2000, like the clergy, they were… forgive me, bulletproof, and still admired.
I figured, put it all in the blend, an alcoholic investigator, bounced from the Force, loves books and is totally conflicted by the old values of the Ireland he grew up in and this new
greedy mini-American country.
And he had to have a mouth on him… like all of the country.
It makes me smile now. Back then, the first book, there were no PIs in Ireland.
Just last week, seven years on, I checked the Yellow Pages, and we have twenty in Galway alone!
Business is brisk.
At the same time, I planned a series. Jack would be caught up in all the secrets Ireland had.
The priests, the Magdalen laundries, teenage suicides, the way the whole fabric of the country was changing.
The Magdalen Martyrs came out, by coincidence, just after the marvelous movie
The Magdalene Sisters.
Priest came out when all the horrendous scandals of the clergy emerged.
Pure luck or just bad karma.
The Guards, they told me, was the biggest mistake in a career littered with bad moves… It was nominated for the Edgar®, won the Shamus, and sold to countries I’d never even heard of.
The Killing of the Tinkers won the Macavity.
But storms on the horizon, naturally.
I have a child with Down syndrome, and in The Dramatist guess what…
Jack is responsible for the death of a child with… fill in the blank.
I never got such hate-filled e-mail.
“How could I?”
I did what you do.
I told the truth.
Always a real bad idea.
Said I’d always intended to kill her… almost did in book three but felt she wasn’t involved enough yet in either Jack’s or the readers’ emotions.
How cold is that?
I gave up explaining that I was experiencing a parent’s worst nightmare…
the loss of
The sixth Jack… Cross, I went for broke and already, we’ve had all the shite about writers going too far and I was mentioned as the prime perp… The crucifixion, a year before, in Belfast, they had done exactly what I described.
Jack’s surname was a personal joke; Taylors Hill is the snotty area of Galway, a place
Jack would never have been allowed to visit.
I never expected Jack to go global… In my view, he was too Irish, too parochial, too damn perverse to have a wide appeal.
But I wrote him as he was whispering in my ear, and the first book, it was like I knew him.
And I do.
The alcoholism is based on my late brother, a man of true warm spirit, my best friend, and he died a vagrant in the Australian outback, so I knew of what I wrote.
And when they come back at me about Jack being so angry?
Gee, wonder where that comes from.
The Irish, we laugh and drink our merry way, fueled by Guinness and Jameson and
never a worry in the world.
What a load of bollocks!
I fucking hate that.
Alcoholism has destroyed the best and the finest of our race, as Jack is fond of quoting.
Most of our literature applauds the culture of drinking.
“What if there were a series of books showing the sheer havoc and misery that drink causes?”
Wouldn’t play well if you wanted Irish Awards or the Irish Tourist Board to endorse you.
And they having serious Euros to invest in the appropriate Irish writer.
And you know, I said, like I’ve said to me cost so many times,
The fook with that.
Here’s the irony… Seven books in, the tourist board calls me, would I be open to showing Japanese tourists Jack’s Galway?
If that isn’t irony?
I was thinking, maybe have them beaten up with a hurly, get a real taste of Jack’s city.
Our national sport is hurling, a cross between hockey and homicide, and it’s fast, brutal, skillful, and I grew up with it.
A perfect hurly is made from ash, honed by an artisan, and sometimes has metal bands on the end.
It’s a little like a Louisville slugger. I have two of those, sent to me by two of the best writers in mystery today.
A hurly has a swoosh like the slugger and that same lethal intent.
When I was in Texas last year and got to hit a few, they asked,
“Where did you learn to play ball?”
I played hurling.
“How much of me is in Jack?’
The rage and reading.
And… sure… some of the beatings.
’Tis a sad tale, but I don’t drink Guinness or, god forgive me, even Jameson.
… Horror, I drink Bud…
Jack would indeed take a hurly to me.
The ordinary people of Galway, so beloved to Jack’s heart, they shout at me from cars… Jack has been a teetotaler for three books.
“Give the poor bastard a drink.”
Writing Jack has been all I know of heaven and hell. It drains me to write him, and I hope to Christ he’ll stop talking to me.
It’s too personal, too harrowing.
I write another series on UK cops… The main character is Brant, and writing those books is a vacation, a breeze… pure fun… or a short story… more time in the sun, but Jack…
Otto Penzler once said to me,
“Bruen, what is it with you, you get us to love characters and then you kill them?”
I read on one of those blog discussions, the big no-no is… don’t kill a child.
Let me go classical here a moment, a little learned, or pseudo, if you prefer, or as our Irish teenagers in their new American tones say,
There is a quote from Aeschylus that is the real motivation behind Jack Taylor, at least for me. It best helps me write him.
Pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop
Upon the heart
And in our own despair,
Against our will,
There comes wisdom
Through the awful
Grace of God
The key word for me there is always… awful.
With Jack, I wanted to see just how much suffering you can inflict on one human being
Till he finally breaks.
Jack’s been there.
Did quit smoking, though.
Not that he’s happy with it.
And those lists?
I’ve been asked so often,
“What’s with the bloody lists?”
I’ve studied chaos, damn, lived it most of me life, and one response to it is to make lists.
Try to impose order on a world spinning more and more out of control.
The later books, the lists got dropped, editorial decision more than anything else.
And quoting other mystery writers.
Because I love to. Not just my favorites, but also ones less known that maybe readers might pick up.
In Priest, I changed direction, went with simply Pascal’s Pensées. Jack steals it from a library in a mental hospital. Nothing else quite seemed to fit the mood of the book.
While I was planning the series, a couple of things were crystal clear in my head.
Jack would always go down the dark streets of the history we’d kept under wraps, like the Magdalen laundries. I grew up right beside them and knew firsthand of the horrors therein.
It was an Irish series, so there had to be a priest, a recurring character, but I didn’t want your lovable Barry Fitzgerald gombeen of The Quiet Man. I wanted a flawed human version to whom priesthood was simply a job, and one he didn’t especially care for.
When I was a child, the country was so poor, for many the only hope of education was by joining the priesthood. Callow youths, like cannon fodder, they went, as it was their mothers’ wish.
What an awful burden to lay on any child. No wonder they went nuts.
Fr. Malachy would always be Jack’s nemesis and, like the best of enemies, they even joined uneasy forces for Priest.
I knew from the off that this series was going to get me into all sorts of shite in Ireland and so went completely for broke.
Like Italians and the other Europeans, we love our mothers… Never no mind she might be the biggest bitch who ever walked the planet, Irish boys love their mammy.
Jack loathed his mother and never tried to hide it. She was everything that is worst about our country.
And a mouth on her
And worst of all… long-suffering, though she instigated most of the suffering.
Jack was having none of it, took her on from the get-go, and it seemed natural her staunchest ally would be Fr. Malachy… a match made only in the malice of Ireland.
Naturally, readers presumed Jack’s mother was based on my own, as if even I have that kind of cojones.
My mother was once asked what she thought of the series, said,
“I never read him.”
Nor did she.
I grew up in a house where books and reading were regarded as not only a waste of time but a waste of money.
God forbid you ever waste money.
My mother, Lord rest her, said,
“Ken lives in a separate room from the rest of us.”
She was right.
By one of those odd coincidences, when Jack’s mother had a stroke, so did mine, so all that Jack experienced then is based on what I was going through.
It’s been eerie with the series like that.
The Killing of the Tinkers, I had a young psycho beheading swans. The swans are to Galway what the apes are to Gibraltar, though a little more attractive to look at.
My publisher was horrified, said,
“You can’t do that!”
Notice how often that crops up in my career.
I refused to back down, and just before the book was published, some lunatic began disemboweling the swans.
I sent my publisher the article, and he said,
“Okay… long as it’s not you doing it.”
I confuse people, not deliberately, but they read the books, thank god! (How Irish is that?) with the darkness, ferocity, brutality, and then they meet me and I’m mellow, easy to be with, and they’re a tad bewildered.
is my nod to my UK readers, the two of them.
I reserve my murderous intent for my work.
Which brings me along to the violence I’ve been crucified for.
I never dwell on it, but it’s there, explicit, and no doubt about what happens. It’s ugly, fast, and very intense.
As all violence is.
Last November, I was at a book launch. A guy walked up and broke my jaw with a hurly.
Now, that is one very bad book review.
Will Jack do similar?
And that led me to the accusations of being pro-vigilante, a fascist, a supporter of all kinds of violent organizations.
You live in Galway, as I do, every single day, our latest horror, some thug walks free after raping an old lady, a seventy-nine-year-old nun, and the perp walks free, is given therapy, and in one ludicrous case, sent to Spain for a holiday.
I would love to say this is Irish exaggeration, but even in the past two years, my own personal history, a drunk driver who killed someone dear to my heart walked free because of personal problems.
The old people in Ireland used to say,
“Me blood boils.”
Mine wept… freaking buckets.
So, I put it on Jack.
Let him deal with it.
And he does.
Usually with a hurly.