Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Magdalen Martyrs

The Magdalen Martyrs by Ken Bruen.

The Plot: This is Bruen's third book featuring Jack Taylor, a disgraced ex-cop living in Galway. When he is sober, he works as a private detective. When he isn't sober, he works as a private detective...and he's almost as good as when he's sober. This time around, Jack has been asked to track down Rita Monroe, a "Magdalen Martyr," an unwed mother sent into the care of the church and horribly abused. A rich yuppie thinks his stepmother murdered his father, so Jack is also looking into that. Neither case is what it appears to be.

The Good: I love, love love these books featuring Jack Taylor. Jack is a fascinating character, and while I cannot recall if he mentions Johnny Cash's cover of Hurt, that is Jack's theme song. He will let you down. And he knows it. And he tells you. But still... you invite him in. You trust him. You like him. And you hope he doesn't continue to screw up his life. But he is so smart as he does so....

How much do I love the Jack Taylor books? I know there's another book in the series; but I string myself along, no, wait a month or two before reading it. I treat the books the way Jack treats booze.

This book is so harsh and uncompromising about Jack that "love" seems too soft a word to use. But I do; I love the harsh matter of factness; I love Jack's love of drink and drugs and his total unrepentance. It's refreshing, in its bleakness. Perhaps I have read one too many young adult issue books, where there are tears and rehab and a reason for the behavior (Mommy was mean, Daddy was overly nice, the mean girls are mean, my parents expected too much, no one understands....). Jack doesn't hide behind excuses or reasons; he simply is what he is. A drunk, who will plan, this is when I need to be sober, and then this is when I can get so drunk I won't know my own name.

Jack is no ordinary junkie; he's smart, he's literate, in love with words, part of him even in love with the whole idea of himself being a hopeless drunk. And he knows it. The book is full of quotes to songs and stories and books and movies, some which the reader may get, others a bit more subtle. When Jack mentions someone I don't know I click over to iTunes or Amazon to remedy that. (Example: Jack mentions David Gray and his song, This Year's Love so of course I had to buy it.)

Jack solves cases; but this isn't a US mystery or a US crime show. It's about asking questions, and putting two and two together and being a bit drunk so not getting to four until it's a little too late. Perhaps most important, there are no feel good fixes; Jack may figure out what happened, find the missing person, uncover the murder, but there are no fixes. People die, but there is only knowledge, no justice. (In past books, Jack has administered his own justice. How does that work out for him? He's still drinking, isn't he?)

If there is someone to let down, Jack's your man. And yet.. and yet.. there is something so compelling about him. I think it's because Jack is so matter of fact about it all, acknowledging his flaws and failures without whining or blame or excuses. And he's cynical and he's funny. But don't get me wrong; while this book is almost glorious in how it details Jack's vices, it never glorifies them, doesn't make them cool.

Of course, it's no good for me to tell you the language is glorious yet harsh, full of dark humor and despair. Let me share one of my favorite passages, especially since December is coming:

December is a rough month. Screw all that festive preparation. If you're on your own, it mocks you at every turn. You open an old book and find a list of of old friends you once sent cards to. Now, they're all dead or disappeared. The television is crammed with toys for children you never had, and boy, is it ever too late. The radio is playing ballads that once held significance or even hope.

Because I read so many books, Janet thinks I'm somebody. This is an old Irish notion, that alas, fools fewer and fewer people.

Was I clogged with self pity? You betcha. Alongside whining, dreaming and shite talk, it's what an alcoholic does best.

At another point, Jack describes a person as someone who knows hell from the inside; someone else is the kind of guy you'd never tire of beating the bejaysus out of.

This is the third Jack Taylor book, so I began to read, all happy at Jack and his honesty, his faults, when I sat up and nearly lost it because all of a sudden : BUFFY. JACK LIKES BUFFY. And at that moment, I thought, Holy Hannah, I'm in love with a middle aged drunk with false teeth. (The false teeth are the result of getting beaten up in a previous book.)

Then Buffy came on. Despite myself, I started to pay attention. Count Dracula had a guest appearance. Buffy asked why he'd come. He hissed, "for the sun?" Was smiling despite myself. Angel followed next. He's a vampire good guy, and then Jack describes the episode where Angel sang Mandy. Jack watches and the author quotes chapter and verse. C'mon people -- how can you not love these books?

Yes, it's best to start with the first book, The Guards.

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