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British Mysteries

The Guards, Ken Bruen, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.

Ken Bruen has obviously encountered a few words in his time that he has a grudge against, because it seems to be a point of honor for him not to use too many. For those of us that have thought Robert B. Parker books have always been terse and have gotten more so, Bruen takes this point of view to an extreme, making The Guards an extremely quick read. There are many other novels to Bruen's credit listed in the front of the book, but I think this is the only one available here. Set in Galway, Ireland, they could hardly be more Irish, and this is the real strength of the book. This is also an all too close look inside the mind of an alcoholic (also the main character), that reminded me very much of Daniel Judson's book, The Poisoned Rose.

The main character, Jack Taylor, is a former member of the Irish Garda, but he's been booted and is taking up the P.I. line instead. Bruen frequently references favorite American crime novelists and this book borrows extremely heavily on a rich American noir tradition - without the poetry of Chandler or Cain to back it up, however, this is just a painful story about an alcoholic who tries to help a woman find out if her daughter had committed suicide or was murdered. There are plenty of sidebars to the story - the bar owner who has been a surrogate father to Jack, the woman who helps him out with research, the colorful wino Jack befriends, the bad news fellow ex-Garda, Sutton, whom Jack should stay miles away from - but of course, doesn't. The only fresh thing about this book is the Irish atmosphere it's soaked in - I didn't think the characters were particularly engaging, and I don't even, as a reader, demand that I like them - I just like to be emotionally engaged in some way.

The one thing I felt was very strong was Bruen's portrayal of Jack's drying out from booze in the hospital, his efforts to stay sober, and his eventual descent back into alcoholic hell. It seemed inevitable, but I was pulling for Jack to make it out alive, and you might feel the same. The curiosity of the second book would be to see whether or not Jack has resumed his mighty struggle against alcohol - and I use "mighty" in the Irish sense of the word. Recommended only to the afficionado of the truly dark, with the setting being the twist.

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