The Magdalen Martyrs by Ken Bruen – review

the magdalen martyrs ken bruenI originally reviewed The Magdalen Martyrs by Ken Bruen on December 21st 2006.

The Magdalen Martyrs is the third entry in the Jack Taylor series and is the darkest one yet. Which, for this series, says a lot. With this book Bruen has Taylor tackle a dark chapter in the Catholic Church’s history, the forced internment of young, unmarried pregnant girls. The Magdalen was one such Church run home in Galway. Under the guise of helping “wayward” girls it was in all actuality a repository of hellish abuse that was all under the auspices of God’s good will. More then one girl entered The Magdalene and didn’t leave.

“The girl was on her knees, polishing the floor. She was dressed in shapeless faded overalls. A spotless white apron bore witness to the laundry she was confined to. For three hours she’d been attempting to bring a high gloss to the floor. She knew it wouldn’t be complete til the very surface reflected her face. The baby she’d had to give up hung like a wound on her soul, searing the very prayers she was trying to mouth.”

Jack owes Bill Cassell, Galway’s crime boss, a few favors. Bill calls them in and wants Jack to find a woman who worked at the Magdalen and helped his mother escape the atrocious conditions there. Bill wants to thank her face to face before she dies, assuming she is still alive. There are many people in the now economically vibrant Galway who would rather have this chapter of their collective past swept under the rug and forgotten about all together. Jack, needless to say, isn’t one to take the advice of others kindly.

Jack Taylor continues to be a fascinating and compelling character in spite of his self destructive tendencies. The more we get to know him we become convinced that we’d like to meet him and have a drink. As Jack is a largely self taught and avid reader his books offer lessons in fiction and crime fiction as he is endlessly quoting passages from his favorite books. The ultimate slap in the face happens to him in the book when forces unseen break into his home and systematically destroys all of his books. Jack Taylor says the following about himself.

“Poets, crime writers, philosophers, charmers, all woven together in a mess of destruction. I’d rarely find a better epitaph for my life.”

One can easily imagine this to be true for Bruen as well. At one point Taylor goes to kill a man. When Jack gets inside his house he sees a book lying on the table. When Jack asks the man about it the man incredulously says he doesn’t read and states further that he stole the book. Jack can’t believe what he is hearing and insists on giving the man a lesson on the author before killing him. For Jack the greater sin wasn’t the wrong that was committed against him but that the book had been dismissed, discarded and unused.

One of the underlying themes that permeate the entire series is looking at the dark side of the economic prosperity that Ireland experienced. With that prosperity also comes a host of other problems that have to be addressed even if those who are benefiting from the boom choose to ignore them. An increase in crime and an influx of drugs are surface problems that have to be addressed. But another more subtle problem is present as well, the death of the old ways. There seems to be the philosophy of out with the old and in with the new and never the twain shall meet. We saw it explicitly in The Killing of the Tinkers and we see it again in The Magdalen Martyrs. It’s an interesting dichotomy that Bruen explores. He doesn’t come up with easy answers or pithy observations but presents the whole scenario, warts and all, for us to take away from what we want.

As before the dead continue to haunt Taylor, not only in his dreams but now in his waking moments as well. A couple of times throughout the book he has hallucinatory moments where he converses with the dead and those that aren’t there. Old objects that we know were discarded suddenly re-appear. Bruen never explains the occurrences though one of the supporting characters offers up a logical explanation. Is it due to the drugs and alcohol? Is it a physical manifestation of Jacks guilt?

“The line of dead who accuse me at every turn of sleep, they come in silent dread, the eyes fixed on me as I twist and moan in vain hope of escape.”

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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