Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: The Dramatist by Ken Bruen (3/5)

The Dramatist - Cover
If I learned anything from reading Ken Bruen’s The Dramatist, it’s that Ireland is a shit hole.  Not really, but that’s the way it seems after reading this Noir-ish mystery novel.  It’s all the protagonist’s fault.  His name is Jack Taylor, and he used to be a guard (the Irish term for a policeman).  He got kicked out a few years ago and now he’s a self-destructive and guilt-wracked drunkard, cocaine addict, and reluctant sometimes-P.I.  Most of his friends and acquaintances are equally depressing.  Indeed, it seems as though everyone on the Emerald Isle is riding the long downward slide of despair.  Or maybe it’s just the main character’s nihilistic world view seeping into the narration.  By all rights old Jack should have killed himself two books ago.  No luck on that front, though.  The Dramatist is the fourth book of what is now a nine book series.  Hard to imagine how Bruen could eek enough self-destruction out of the character to fill five more books, but there you go.

When the story begins, Jack is riding a wave of good fortune.  He’s been sober for six months—no booze, no cocaine, only five cigarettes a day and lots and lots of coffee.  He’s even attending mass regularly.  But before you go getting all excited about Jack’s new lease on life, wait a tick until you hear the reason for the new-found sobriety.  Turns out his cocaine dealer was sent to prison for ten years, and he couldn’t find another dealer.  Therefore he was forced to quit, and while he was at it, he thought he’d try getting off the sauce, too.  So now ‘ole Jack’s shit-tastic life is just a little less shitty.  But this is a Ken Bruen novel, so you know things can only go downward from here.

Jack’s only friends in the world are a married couple that run a bar.  They have a daughter, a three year old Downs syndrome child whom Jack babysits from time to time.  It was through these friends that Jack met his drug dealer (some friends, right?), and it is also through them he gets word that this same drug dealer wants to talk to him.  So against his better judgment, he makes the trip to Dublin and the prison where this lowlife is incarcerated.  He tells Jack that his sister, a college student back at the local university, recently died from a fall down a flight of stairs.  It’s been ruled an accident by the police, but he doesn’t think their explanation holds water.  He wants Jack to investigate, and applies a little leverage (otherwise known as money) to make him take the job.

So off Jack goes to impersonate insurance men and police officers and rummage through the muck of what’s left of a promising young girl’s life.  During the course of his investigation he finds two disturbing things:  1) the girl was found with a book by John Millington Synge beneath her body (Synge was an Irish dramatist, author, and poet who played a large role in the Irish Literary Revival of the late 1800s, early 1900s), and 2) there was another girl who died days earlier from a fall down a flight of steps, and wouldn’t you know it?  There was a copy of Synge found underneath her body as well.  Looks like there’s a serial killer on the loose! 

Other events come into play as Jack continues to investigate.  There’s a vigilante group known as the Pikemen that begin assaulting citizens for perceived crimes, and they try (unsuccessfully) to recruit Jack.  He also starts dating a middle-aged woman and (shocker of all shockers) strikes up a healthy relationship with her.  As his investigation progresses, it becomes apparent that these murders are motivated by something within Synge’s work, prompting Jack to do a lot of research and reading on the subject.  There’s some other stuff in there too, but in the process Jack manages to sleuth out the killer and bring him to justice.  I won’t tell you the how’s and why’s of it all, ‘cos that would spoil the surprise.

Ken Bruen
But Bruen can’t leave it at that.  After all, this is Noir—or something close to it.  Things can’t end happily.  And since this is Jack Taylor-style Noir, Bruen has to trot out a backhoe in order to handle all the crap he heaps on Jack’s head.  One day after things have cooled off, Jack is babysitting his friends’ little Downs syndrome girl.  His attention is momentarily drawn to something else, and before he knows it the little girl has toddled out the open window, falling several stories to the pavement below.  No joke.

I mean, WTF?! Really, Ken?  You had to kill off the mentally challenged baby at the end of your story?  You couldn’t just, I don’t know, have Jack’s new relationship go sour?  Couldn’t have him go on a bender and fall off the wagon?  You had to go that route?  Of all of the things you could have possibly done, you had to choose to kill off the kid with Down’s syndrome?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pissed because you killed off a handicapped baby.  I’m pissed because you did it so pointlessly.  It had no bearing on the story as a whole; it was only a vehicle with which to make Jack’s life suck harder.

And speaking of that, did you notice how at the beginning I called in a “Noir-ish” mystery?  Noir is one of the “in” terms in literature these days (right below “young adult”, “dystopia”, and “paranormal”), and, like most literary fads, the term has been applied to a far-ranging array of works that perhaps don’t deserve the epithet.  Contrary to popular belief, Noir is not the idea that the world is utter shit.  Modern “noir” has a tendency to devolve into a treatise on why our entire existence is a fruitless endeavor full of suckitude.  But that’s not Noir.  That’s Nihilism.  Noir is the idea that our base human emotions (fear, jealousy, lust) lead to the downfall of man, that life sucks because of our own human failings.  That’s the difference.  It’s not cruel and meaningless misfortunes heaped upon one another ad nauseum, and it’s not a little handicapped girl falling out of a window at the end of a story for no other reason than to make the main character’s life more miserable. 

And that brings me to my next point.  What is it with mystery authors these days?  It’s like they’re competing to see who can create the most mind-fucked protagonists they can.  I know I’m only one reader, and so my opinion might as well be mud, but if any of you authors are out there and reading this review, please-oh-please just knock it off.  Realistic, flawed characters are great.  I love them.  But when your character is so broken he can hardly function (honestly, by all rights Jack Taylor should have offed himself a long time ago), it becomes just a wee bit tedious.  I’m not saying that I want my protagonists to be all farts and sunshine, I just want you to tone it down a little bit.  Can you do that for me?  Or at least say you’ll try?  I’d settle for that at this point.

With all this bitching and moaning I suppose most of you are thinking that I didn’t like the book—but I did.  I really did.  Bruen is an amazing writer.  His voice, his style, his diction, his characterization, his dialogue, his imagery, they’re all top notch.  He’s got a real talent for mood and aura.  When it comes to dark mysteries, he’s one of the best.  There were just some things that kept me from enjoying the novel to its fullest.  You’ve heard a couple reasons already, but the mystery portion of the book I felt was also a little rushed.  Not enough investigation went on for my tastes.  I know it was a short book, and there’s only so much investigation you can get into something this length (especially when most of your time is spent building your protagonist up just so you can knock him down again), but I couldn’t help but feel like it needed to be longer.  This one gets three stars from me.  I’m not going swear off Ken Bruen novels or anything, but I do think I’ll pass on the next Jack Taylor installment.  I don’t even want to know what new misfortune is waiting for poor Jack.













28 comments:

  1. Hi Johnathan,
    Great review!If you want to read another novel based in Ireland, you can try Roddy Doyle's booker winning book, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha ha.
    Found your blog while knocking about the web, and liked it very much. I am a book fanatic pretty much like you. Looking forward to reading more reviews from you. following you now!

    Please do visit my book blog at http://riversihaveknown.wordpress.com/
    And if you like it, please follow. looking forward to having you over for book-y discussions :)

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    1. Thanks, LLG. I had to look up that "Paddy Clark" title, and it sounds like a heady read--like stream of consciousness on acid... or just the mind of a ten year old boy. Anyway, thanks for the suggestion. I'm going to put this on my list of books to look out for.

      I'll cerainly check out your blog--and thanks for stopping by mine. Talk to you soon!

      Oh yeah, I meant to say also that your name reminded me of another crime novel with the same name b a guy named Richard Aleas. Really good if you want to check it out. Of course, Aleas got that from William Blake, which I'm guessing is where you got yours. ;)

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  2. Jonathan- I totally agree with you about Bruen. I read his books for a while but I had a really hard time with how self-destructive all of his characters were. I don't need my protagonists to end up at the happy side of a self-help book when I'm done, but at the same time, Jack Taylor just sort of made me feel shitty about humanity. He's such a mess, he treats the women he sleeps with like crap, and nothing ever really gets better. I found that, after a few books, I couldn't even really pull for him anymore. It's like having to listen to your friends who always have drama in their lives- the ones who incessantly complain about the drama but it's all stuff they created through bad choices. After a while it's like, "Okay. Moving on."

    Also, I feel that there's a difference between an emotionally stirring moment and cheap emotional manipulation. Killing a child with down syndrome is the latter, particularly in that context.

    I agree with you about the "noir" fad. I feel that movies are going through the same situation (ahem, "Drive").

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    1. Erin, I so love your coments. I also love that you've read Ken Bruen. And have I told you I love it when you agree with all ny cantankerous opinions? Well I do. You. You're good, you.

      Though I gotta say, if there's a new movie I really want to see, it's got to be Lockout. That one with Guy Pierce? I mean, it's like Con Air in space! What's not to love?

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  3. I had to double check and I was right! You spelled Irving Welsh's name wrong.

    (Also, he's Scottish).

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    1. OK, now I'm really confused. Huh?

      And I looked it up--you spelled Irvine Welsh's name wrong. Was that part of the joke? ;)

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  4. Great review Jonathan. I think basically every noir book makes the setting looks like a shit-hole, it's part of the genre. I have had Irish noir on my nook for a few months now but never got around to reading it.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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    1. You do have a point there, though a lot of the classic Noir novels from the 20s through the 50s dealt much more with the lives of the rich and famous and the decay the dwells beneath the gilded surface.

      Be sure to let me know how that Irish Noir turns out--who's the author, by the way?

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  5. The plot sounds interesting, but killing the child at the end sounds useless if it doesn't help with the plot. I got the first book in the series and after less than 20 pages Jack is already drinking in a pub.
    And I agree with you. There seems to be some unwritten rule today that says detectives need to have sad, self-destructive lives.

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    1. Good luck with The Guards. I have a feeling that will be a good one. A good bit better than The Dramatist, at any rate. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Hellen.

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