The Magdalen Martyrs by Ken Bruen

In a post earlier this week I said Ken Bruen’s latest novel is the best book I’ve read this year. The Magdalen Martyrs is part of series of books set in Galway, Ireland that feature Jack Taylor. The book was published in the US by St. Martins Minotaur.

Bruen takes all the elements of fiction, let alone crime fiction, and gives them a hard twist. Structure, theme, setting, plot, characterization are all working all the time, sometimes panting to keep up, sometimes snapped off at the knees by a bolt of electric prose.

Ken Bruen organizes his story into chapters but that’s largely a convenience for the reader. They read more like sonnets especially those that refer to the Magdalens, Irish girls whose misfortune was to be in the care of a woman known as Lucifer. He frames most of the sections with quotes from sources as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Pelecanos. Loss is seen for what it is, not a singular event, but a constant, the shadow across the sidewalk, hard glances, raised eyebrows, clenched fists. This is a theme driven novel in the finest sense; it defines who Jack Taylor is, why he does the things he does, unifying cause and effect so that the plot develops the feel of inevitability.

Jack, ex of the Garda, is hired to look into the case of the Magdalens. Bill Cassel, local tough guy, wants Jack to locate a woman who helped Cassel’s mother escape the Magdalen Laundry, a home for wayward girls. Cassel is a dangerous thug and Jack isn’t safe on the streets of his native Galway. Jack is also investigating a mysterious woman whose husband may have been murdered. And two young men have met violent ends, executed for no apparent reason.

Jack struggles with alcohol and struggles more without it. He surrounds himself with books, detests his mother and her attendant priest, lives in a hotel on what seems like an hour to hour basis. He offends friend and foe in equal measure creating a continuous free fire zone in interpersonal relations. When he meets a female guard whose Irish name is Brid Nic an Iomaire he calls her by the English derivation, Ridge. Nothing is left to chance, Jack alienates everyone.

The book’s resolution is as neat as a shot of Bushmills. It’s the one flaw in the story where Bruen accedes to the novel form and the obligations of his genre. This conflict between the author and his form goes to the romantic soul of the book. Through all the violence, heartache, rage and disappointment, the pale light of hope filters through the opaque curtain of nastiness.

Bruen makes liberal use of pop culture references, sometimes to prompt a response from his character, sometimes to drop the mask and smack the reader. The fact that this works most of the time is nothing short of miraculous. The Magdalen Martyrs often teeters on the brink of chaos. The cadence and structure might seem jarring to some readers. Think of the book as an epic poem concealed within a crime novel. Somewhere between Robert Blake and Moliere, Ken Bruen is carving up the boundaries of where genre fiction dares to go.

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