Ken Bruen


Life
1951- ; [b. Galway? England?]; raised in a family that ‘never had books’; offered place at RADA; studied English, TCD and completed dissertation in metaphysics (?MA); taught English in Africa, Japan, S. E. Asia and S. America for 25 years; imprisoned for 4 months for part in bar-brawl in Rio de Janeiro; raped and brutalised by prison-guards; recalled police brutality in a Guardian interview; returned to London; began writing stories for disaffected kids in Brixton; produced Rilke on Black (1996), a crime novel applying American noir style to UK setting;
 
early novels incl. Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice (1998), filmed by Pilgrim Pictures; issued The Guards (2001), the first in the Jack Taylor series featuring a disgraced Galway ex-cop, later nominated for Edgar and Golden Dagger Awards and winner of the Shamus Award in Toronto, 2004; issued The Killing of the Tinkers (2002); wrote the “White” Trilogy for Channel 4; issued The Guards, a novel filmed in Ireland by De Facto [see Clé catalogue 2002]; issued The Magdalen Martyrs (2003), a Jack Taylor Story tracing the ‘angel’ who helped the laundry girls to escape their convent prison; issued Vixen (2003), involving Chief-Inspector Roberts and a serial-killer of women;
 
issued Dispatching Baudelaire (2004), a novel of the underworld, and The Dramatist (2004), another Jack Taylor story; has appeared in Roger Corman productions in Galway, playing an extra (dead Viking) in Alfred the Great; m., with a Downs Syndrome dg., Grace; settled in Galway; working on Priest (due 2005), in the Jack Taylor series; ed. Dublin Noir (2006), a commissioned crime-story collection, with mostly unknown writers; his Priest (2006) concerns clerical child-abuse and an ex-police officer; issued The Hackman Blues (2007), concerning a missing girl and a gay ex-con who sets out to find her for her father but plays it fast and loose with violent results;
 
issued The Dramatist (2008), and American Skin (2008), in which Stephen Blake hides from the IRA in America after a bank robbery; lives in Galway with wife and dg., and - by 2008 - with his dg. only.
[ top ]
Works
Novels
  • Funeral: Tales of Irish Morbidities (Pittsburgh: Dorrance 1991), 90pp.;
  • Shades of Grace (Upton-upon-Severn: Images 1993), 126pp.;
  • Martyrs (London: Minerva 1994), 95pp.;
  • Rilke on Black (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1996), 150pp.;
  • The Hackman Blues (London: Do-Not 1997), 152pp.;
  • Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice (London: Serpent’s Tail 1998, 2005), 124pp.
  • A White Arrest (London: Do-Not 1998), 192pp.; [set in London]
  • Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice (London: Serpent’s Tail 1998), 160pp.;
  • Taming of the Alien [White Trilogy; Bloodlines Ser.] (London: Do-Not 1999), 158pp.;
  • The McDead (London: Bloodlines 2000), 151pp.;
  • London Boulevard [Bloodlines Ser.] (London: Do-Not 2001), 237pp.;
  • The Killing of the Tinkers (Dingle: Brandon Press 2002), 253pp.
  • Blitz; or, Brant Hits the Blues (London: Do-Not 2002), 268pp.
  • The Magdalen Martyrs (Dingle: Brandon Books 2003; 2004), 308pp.;
  • The Guards (Dingle: Brandon Books 2001; 2004), 303pp.;
  • Vixen (London: Do Not 2003), 288pp.
  • Dispatching Baudelaire (Dublin: Sitric 2004), 176pp.;
  • The Dramatist (Dingle: Brandon Books 2004), 288pp.;
  • Priest (London: Bantham 2006; Corgi 2007), 363pp.;
  • Cross (London: Bantam 2007), 288pp.;
  • American Skin (Dingle: Brandon Press 2008), 281pp.;
  • Sanctuary (Transworld Ireland 2008), 203pp.
 
Short fiction
The Time of Serena-May [&] Upon the third Cross: A Collection of Short Stories (London: Adelphi Press 1994), 134pp.

Novels (by series)

BRANT SERIES: A White Arrest (1998); Taming the Alien (2000); The McDead (2001); Blitz; or, Brant Hits the Blues (London: Do-Not 2002), 268pp.; Vixen (2003); The White Trilogy (2003) [omnibus]; Calibre (2004).

JACK TAYLOR SERIES: The Guards (2001); The Killing of the Tinkers (2002); The Magdalen Martyrs (2003); The Dramatist (Dingle: Brandon 2004), 288pp.; Priest (Bantham 2006); Cross (London: Bantam 2007), 288pp.; The Dramatist (2008).

COLLECTIONS: Funeral: Tales of Irish Morbidities (1992); Sherry and Other Stories (1994); Time of Serena-May and Upon the Third Cross: A Collection of Short Stories (London: Adelphi 1994), 134pp.

Omnibus editions, A fifth of Bruen: Early Fiction of Ken Bruen (Houston Busted Flush Press 2006), 352pp. CONTENTS: “Funeral: Tales of Irish Morbidities”; “Martyrs”; “Sherry and Other Stories”; “All the Old Songs and Nothing to Lose”; “Time of Serena-May & Upon the Third Cross”.

Miscellaneous, Ken Bruen, ed., Dublin Noir (Dublin: Brandon Press 2006), 256pp. [Ray Banks, James O. Born, Bruen, Reed Farrell Coleman, Eoin Colfer, Jim Fusilli, Patrick J. Lambe, Laura Lippman, Craig McDonald, Pat Mullan, Gary Phillips, John Rickards, Peter Spiegelman, Jason Starr, Olen Steinhauer, Charlie Stella, Duane Swierxzynski, Sarah Weinman, Kevin Wignall.]

[ top ]

Criticism
[Shirley Kelly,] feature interview in Books Ireland (March 2003); Declan Burke, ‘The Real Black Stuff’, in Village (13-19 Nov. 2004) [“In & Out”], p.55 [infra]; Ali Karim, ‘Calling Galway: A Conversation with Ken Bruen’ [in Las Vegas], in Shotsmag (q.d.) [infra].

See interview in Declan Burke, ed., Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (Dublin: Liberties Press 2011).

[ top ]

Commentary
Kirkus Reviews, review of Rilke on Black (1996): ‘“If I were built”, Dex Cole tells his mate Nick, “I’d spend the time cracking skulls. … I’d never get tired.” Well, Nick is built, and since he’s been fired from his job as a bouncer, why shouldn’t he take time helping his jailbait girlfriend Lisa, a black druggie, kidnap local black businessman Ronald Baldwin? And why shouldn’t he bring Dex into the job? Though the three of them get along fine - after all, they bluster and swear and fornicate out of a common cultural vocabulary that ranges from Basic Instinct to Woody Allen to Truman Capote to Mickey Rourke to Bruce Springsteen to Rilke’s Duino Elegies (“I had culture coming out of my arsehole”, as Nick puts it) - each one is so violent and unstable that it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong; Baldwin, who alternates between yoga exercises and swapping allusions with his kidnappers, may be in less danger than they are. The inevitable spark comes from Nick’s casual ex-lover Bonny Melior, and when it does, you’d better be a million miles away. Bruen’s crime plot is lifted from Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, but his characters’ obsession with cultural detritus from T. S. Eliot to Garth Brooks, all of it as painstakingly mastered as if in preparation for an exam in Life of Crime 101, creates a blistering lack of effect. At the same time, Bruen’s first novel makes you realize with a thump just how postmodern The Postman Always Rings Twice must have seemed 60 years ago, if they’d only had the word.)’

[ top ]

Declan Burke,‘The Real Black Stuff’ [‘Is lean, mean hard-boiled Irish fiction out to kichk the ass of “chick-lit”?’, in Village (13-19 Nov. 2004) [“In & Out”], p.55. Writes of Bruen’s winning the Shamus Award in Toronto, and his appearance: ‘’His 50-something, deeply-lined face looks not so much “lived-in” as “recently abandoned by a horde of squatting crusties”. In person, he is softly spoen, a gentle and generous man who just so happens to write corruscating novels about the mayhem and anarchy that rage beneath the botoxed skin of civilised society. But he doesn’t just write crime novels: he wrires noir, which he defines as “writiing that kicks you in the face”. Quotes Bruen: ‘One of the great things starting out writing Irish crime fiction was that there were no terms of reference. There was this incredible fredom. Joyce and Yeats and all the gang weren’t leaning on my shoulder, because this was completely new. And I think that’s a great position for any writer to be in, that you’re not brudened by the baggage of the past.’ ‘I always say that my influences are American (Chandler, James M. Cain, James Ellroy [sic]), which doesn’t get me a lot of friends, but those are the guys who taught me what I know. They’re the books I loved reading / I think if the world survices another five or ten years, crime fiction will be huge in Ireland. It’ll be the new chick lit. God forgive me. It’ll be that big. I really believe it.’

[ top ]

Ali Karim, ‘Calling Galway: A Conversation with Ken Bruen’ [in Las Vegas], in Shotsmag, online [link]: ‘I was a silent child, huge crime reader in chatty Ireland and our family never had books, they were verboten, they said I was left by the fairies and even today, they say...he’s odd, he reads...and worse...he writes.’ ‘The best change [in Ireland] is the church has lost its power and the people no longer have to emigrate; the worst is drugs, greed and racism.’ AK: ‘So the politics of the far right are appearing in Ireland?’ KB: ‘Yes, the fuckers fester ...’ AK: ‘Moving onto the Jack Taylor books, I find the bleakness in them weirdly refreshing (even with a character living with the hell of alcoholism). Taylor is a wonderful creation, but where in your psyche did he originate?’ KB: ‘My best friend Noel, my older brother was found dead in the Australian outback, from alcoholism ... does the disease run in our family? ... It fuckin’ gallops ...’ AK: ‘ What was the reaction from the Garda to your Jack Taylor books and the Met to the Brixton books? [...]’ KB: ‘ I don’t give a tinker’s cuss. The Met refused all cooperation ... The Guards sent me a zippo lighter said ... we don’t always approve but keep it up ... a great friend of mine now has the said zippo ...’.

[ top ]

Quotations
Good, or what? ‘It’s really hard for me to judge my own work. What it’s really good, I know. Say you hit a morning and you do two or three pages and it really cooks, and you f**king know it, then it’s better than sex. For me, anyway. That’s why I write. / The best part is when a good review comes in [...]’ (Quoted in Declan Burke [interview-article], Village, Nov. 2004, as supra.)

[ top ]

Reference
Brandon Books lists The Guards / The Killing of Tinkers / The Magdalen Martyrs / The Dramatist (Books Ireland, Sept. 2004).

[ top ]

Notes
Rilke on Black (1996): In South London, an unlikely gang of kidnappers hatch a plot. Nick, an ex-bouncer, Dex, a charismatic sociopath, and Lisa, a motor-mouth junkie femme fatale. Their prey is a powerful, local businessman with an obsession for the poet Rilke. Thing is, each kidnapper has a very different agenda. Which means it’s only a matter of time before the joking stops, and the ever-threatening violence begins. Rilke on Black is an eerie, crooked tale of sex, obsession and betrayal. Ken Bruen’s dark contemporary thriller matches a razor sharp vernacular with a country music soundtrack to create a truly intoxicating and original mix. QC called it ‘The most startlingly original crime novel to emerge this decade’. (COPAC notice.)

[ top ]

Her Last Call was Louis MacNeice (1998): ‘Everything hunky-dory... and then ... Then I shot the cashier in the face. I guess it all began with Cassie.’ Cooper had done his time for GBH. Now he was on the outside, he’d set up a legit business with Doc whom he’d met in prison. They called themselves “Righteous Repo” and they even have an accountant. The Repo firm did good business but lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. And it wasn’t anywhere near as exhilarating as the bank jobs they did on the side. Cooper gets more excitement than he bargained for when Cassie walks into his life. Cassie likes poetry, guns and money, but more importantly she likes Cooper, and nothing and nobody is going to stand in the way of her getting what she wants. (COPAC notice.)

[ top ]

The Hackman Blues (2007): A find-the-girl novel in which the gay, manic-depressive, ex-con Tony Brady, who quotes from Genet, Baldwin or Maupin at the drop of a hat, sets up a business with former cellmate Elias Rasheed Mohammed (Reed for short) from Wormwood Scrubs in Brixton. When the wealthy builder Jack Dunphy asks him to find his runaway teenage daughter Roz he comes up against the ruthless black club-owner Leon Leon, whom she is with, and violence ensues as Reed and Tony attempt to play both ends against the middle. Pop-culture, drugs, sex, jazz and bullets are part of the mix. (See Amazon, editorial reviews, online; 06.08.2009.)

[ top ]

Cross (2007): title from kros (n., v., adj.) an ancient instrument of torture, or, in a very bad humour, or, a punch thrown across an opponent’s punch. Jack Taylor brings death and pain to everyone he loves. His only hope of redemption - his surrogate son, Cody - is lying in hospital in a coma. At least he still has Ridge, his old friend from the Guards, though theirs is an unorthodox relationship. When she tells him that a boy has been crucified in Galway city, he agrees to help her search for the killer. Jack’s investigations take him to many of his old haunts where he encounters ghosts, dead and living. Everyone wants something from him, but Jack is not sure he has anything left to give. Maybe he should sell up, pocket his Euros and get the hell out of Galway like everyone else seems to be doing. Then the sister of the murdered boy is burned to death, and Jack decides he must hunt down the killer, if only to administer his own brand of rough justice. (COPAC notice.)

[ top ]

Sanctuary (2008): Two guards; one nun; one judge. When a letter containing a list of victims arrives in the post, Police-Inspector Jack Taylor is sickened, but tells himself the list has nothing to do with him. He has enough to do just staying sane. His close friend Ridge is recovering from surgery, and alcohol’s siren song is calling to him ever more insistently. A guard and then a judge die in mysterious circumstances. But it is not until a child is added to the list that Taylor determines to find the identity of the killer, and stop them at any cost. What he doesn’t know is that his relationship with the killer is far closer than he thinks. And that it’s about to become deeply personal. Spiked with dark humour, seasoned with acute insights about the perils of urbanisation, and fuelled by rage at man’s inhumanity to man, this is crime-writing at its darkest and most original. (COPAC notice.)

[ top ]

American Skin (2008): a tale of the American dream gone wrong as Stephen Blake and his girlfriend go on the run after a bank robbery. All he has to do is lose his identity and put on an American skin, but it is not that easy with a ruthless IRA man and a psychotic criminal on his trail. Not one for the fainthearted but fans of the genre will like it. (See Books Ireland, May 2009.)

[ top ]

Sale of rights: publication rights of Jack Taylor series sold in US, Australia, Japan, France, Italy, Russia, Holand, Albania (Brandon Press notice; Books Ireland, Sept. 2004).

[ top ]