More then the central mystery to be solved The Guards acts as a character study of Jack Taylor. In Taylor, Bruen cultivates a uniquely Irish dosage of melancholy. Unable to shake his demons he tries to drown them in drugs, violence and especially alcohol. While all of this is handled with ample amounts of dark humor these elements of his personality aren’t glorified. They become full and real and oppressive. He loses time, blacking out for whole days, then waking in his own filth only to start the entire process over again. O’Malley’s law may best summarize Jack Taylor’s life “Murphy was an optimist.”
The potentially devastating atmosphere that is created by writing about such a hard and depressing topic is leavened by Bruens authentic Irish characters. They all possess wit, wisdom and humor that allow you to almost laugh about Jacks troubles if only to keep from crying.
The overall story has a very subtle tweaking of the nose of genre conventions if you care to look for it. Taylor, though ostensibly the primary “investigator”, takes a back seat during the actual process. When all is said and done and you close the covers of the book for the final time, it will begin to dawn on you that Taylor didn’t really do anything. This lends further proof that The Guards is primarily a character study and a mystery novel second. To be fair, the mystery at the heart of the novel does find some modicum of resolution, but Jacks once sharp policing skills didn’t force the resolution the way that it would have in a more traditional PI story or even your standard police procedural.
The Guards should be subtitled “The Sins of Jack Taylor”. The most striking scenes in the book come when Taylor visits Rahoon cemetery. Every ghost and demon that haunts him, every sin that he has ever committed has a grave marker there. The normal emotional weight that is present during a visit to a cemetery is increased and becomes almost unbearable. What should be a simple visit to pay respects becomes an oppressive journey through his troubled past.
As an aside, it is refreshing that the book wasn’t Anglicized for the American audience. Gaelic words, terms and slang as well as Galeweigan locales are tossed freely around with little or no attempt at exposition. Pick it up or not, Bruen doesn’t care.
I originally reviewed The Guards by Ken Bruen on August 18th, 2006