|The Dramatist - Cover|
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 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. Dublin
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.
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.