Headstone by Ken Bruen – review

How far can you push a man before he finally breaks?

I guess if you’re Jack Taylor—Ken Bruen’s favorite degenerate PI—you can probably damn near chop off every limb on his body (although I think Taylor would go a little bugshit not being able to tip back a large Jameson and light a smoke.) and chances are he’ll still keep chugging along without batting an eye and try to come up with some scheme to enact a healthy measure of vengeance for turning him into a stump.

Every time I open a new Jack Taylor novel, the first question that jumps to mind as I crack the cover is: What the fuck is Bruen going to do to Taylor this time? What degradation will he have to endure? I also ask myself: Do I really find this character believable anymore? Could an actual person go through the same level of mental anguish and still manage to not become some raving lunatic standing on a street corner wearing a tinfoil cap?

And, finally, I ask: Do I even want to read about Taylor anymore? Do I care enough about the character to turn the first page?

With Bruen’s latest Jack Taylor novel, Headstone, (Also his first with the newly resurrected Mysterious Press) the reigning king of Irish crime fiction once again pushes Taylor to the brink. But before absolutely crushing him, he does dole out a little bit of sweet. At the beginning of Headstone, Taylor is madly in love with an American crime novelist and for the first time in his all too painful life,Tayloris actually planning for the future. This is, of course, all disrupted when long time Taylor nemesis/confessor Father Malachy is viciously attacked and left in a coma.

Taylor reluctantly begins investigating the attack at the urging of longtime friends Ban Garda Ridge (my favorite of the long time supporting cast members in the Taylor novels and a character I wish Bruen would expand on more to perhaps feature her as the main protagonist in a novel or two) and former drug dealer, turned entrepreneur and Zen practitioner, Stewart. As the investigation progresses, Taylor, Ridge, and Stewart all receive tiny headstones in the mail. Soon after Ridge is attacked (which she successfully escapes) and Taylor is kidnapped.

During Taylor’s confinement it’s revealed that his newest tormentors are a band of neo-“Darwinist” terrorists calling themselves Headstone, are looking to rid Ireland of its “lesser” inhabitants, namely homosexuals, the developmentally disabled, (there’s a scene in Headstone where this band of assholes murder a young man with Down’s Syndrome and I actually had to put the book down because the attack was so violent—yeah, I know, that kind of sounds weird coming from me, but the violence of the scene is breathtaking.) and alcoholics/addicts. During the confinement, the small gang manages to lose Taylor the love of his life and liberate him of two of his fingers. After the kidnapping,Taylor is dumped on the street and so begins the hunt for Headstone before they can reap any damage on the people of Galway.

As with most Bruen novels, you don’t read his books purely for the plot, but for his distinct literary voice. Over the years Bruen has become one of the single most imitated crime novelists in the world (I, for instance, will stop writing fiction when reading a new Bruen novel because his oh so dominant voice will ingrain itself too heavily into whatever I’m writing.) and with good reason. His style is simple, direct and yet bluntly poetic and most importantly, compulsively readable.

Taylor is, as usual, both charming and repugnant, and you wonder why both Ridge and Stewart have stood by him for so long? It is good to see both characters being more heavily utilized and realized in Headstone as opposed to simply being victims of Taylor’s random emotional abuse. I did, however, find that the antagonists (one of which is making his second appearance in a Taylor novel) were a bit on the cartoonish side on menacing in certain scenes, but for the most part serve as a perfect lynchpin for Taylor’s wrath.

Overall, Headstone is Bruen’s strongest Jack Taylor novel in years. Both the characterization and plot are breathless in delivery and Bruen’s voice has never seemed stronger or more self assured.

And to answer my own question: Yes, Mr. Bruen, I still care about Jack Taylor.

Just don’t chop off anymore bits of him, I don’t think he can take much more.

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Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift.(New Pulp Press) He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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  1. I’ll admit, this was my first time reading Mr. Bruen and his distinct style jarred me at first. But the narrative and playfulness with language kept me reading. A few more pages and he had me by the collar, and I’ll be reading everything I can get my hands on of his from now on.

  2. Tommy –

    I’d rec you go back and do The Guards and American Skin by Bruen, maybe The White Trilogy as well. The Taylor books haven’t been very strong for years, and though I’m liking Headstone a little so far, it’s not the best representation of what Bruen is capable of.

  3. Tommy – You can also try going way back to the inspector Bryant novels, which in my opinion are just flat out brilliant piece of writing. I’m also a pretty big fan of Bruen’s most recent stand alone, Once Were Cops, great writing.

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