Review: Ken Bruen is a literary force of nature. Ah, crap, that sounds like gushing. Hell with it. [You see how my vocab and tone have changed from the norm as a result of swimming in the black depths of this book?] Bruen is just that brilliant. Consistently. Brilliance doesn't just flash occasionally for Bruen, the quality is so permanent and pervasive that you have to wonder just when it was that he sold his soul, eh? Even as I anticipated reading this book I worried that maybe, lacking old friends like Sgt. Brant and Jack Taylor, Once Were Cops might not be vintage Bruen. To the contrary, Bruen has managed to up his game. You young whippersnapper-writers out there (and you know who you are) take note: The Master is the Master for a reason. So what if your last book raised the ante? Bruen just upped it again, and he looked you dead in the eyes when he did it. Man up, boys.
For folks who are bigger fans of Bruen's Brant series than of the Jack Taylor books, you're going to love this book. Kebar is Brant taken one step farther. Shea is yet another step (or 12) farther out. And when you think Ken Bruen has taken you to the outer edge of cop psychoses, oh, brother, had you better think again. Think Mephistopheles. Yeah, I mean the characters, but I think I mean Bruen, too. Scary, ain't it?
The Bruen trademarks are all present: Pithy sentences that speak paragraphs more than many another crime fic writer; Bruen's usual nod to those younger authors (Duane Swierczynski this time around) I have come to think of as his crew; a mix of books and music worth noting; and a continuation of his, um, danse macabre with the Catholic church. And his finest trademark, the twist on the twist, with maybe a little extra turn of the screw.
Here'a sample from a scene in which Shea is being interviewed by two Internal Affairs cops after he saved Kebar's life by shooting a perp. The punctuation and spacing are as they appear in the book.
McCarthy put up his hand to stop me, asked,
"And did you caution him, tell him to drop his weapon, identify yourself as a police officer?"
I glanced at the black guy and was he smiling? I asked,
"You ever hear a shotgun being primed?"
He stared at me, irritation on his face, asked,
"What's your point?"
I made a click with my tongue, said,
"That's the sound and it tells you, you have maybe two seconds to identify yourself or...save your partner, what would you do or don't you get out from behind a desk?"
The black guy chuckled and McCarthy was riled, snapped,
"Hey pal, you're a goddamn rookie, don't get mouthy with me, you got that?"
I let that hover for a bit, then said,
"A rookie who saved his partner's life."
He changed tactics, became Mr. Cordiality, asked,
"How do you find your partner, busting your balls is he?"
Now I got to smile, said,
"I thought that was your job."
He let it go, continued,
"How do you feel about cops on the take?"
I didn't hesitate, said,
"Much the same way I feel about informers, sorry...Internal Affairs."
I usually like to point my reviews at those who would most appreciate the book. So if you've read Bruen's work and did not become an immediate fan, this book won't change things for you. If you're already a fan, you won't be disappointed. If you're thinking about trying out a Bruen book for the first time, this is as good a place as any to start. If John Sandford's books appeal to you because of the black humor, if you like Joe Pike best when he's killing someone, if you don't mind not having a single character to empathize with, if you think Jim Thompson's Lou Ford character was a wimp, and if you like going ooh and aah every so often while your eyebrows dance all over your forehead, this is your kind of book. Folks who like a mystery solved by cats, need not apply.
For all my raving, I find there is something negative to be said about this book. About the book, mind you, not about the story, not about the writing. Something present in this hardbound edition I purchased, that I have not noticed in other Bruen titles, is the white space. If the double-spacing were eliminated and the font set to something other than 'For the Legally Blind,' this book would run to perhaps 120-130 pages, rather than the 294 pages the publisher feels is required in a crime novel. So let me just say this to the good people at St. Martin's Minotaur: Save the trees! I will pay full price for every Ken Bruen title you publish, I even buy from an indie bookstore where there are no deep discounts, so cut the crap, okay? 120 pages from Ken Bruen carry more weight and have greater impact than 400-500 pages from almost any other author you care to name. Didn't I already say it? Ken Bruen is a literary force of nature.
UPDATE 11/8/08 - Duane Swierczynski says that Bruen has a couple of letters in his name swapped around in the book and thus the character is not really named after him. Bosh! I say, and bosh! again.