A collection of novellas and stories from Shamus Award winner Ken Bruen, author of the Jack Taylor series and the “godfather of the modern Irish crime novel” (The Irish Times).
An Irishman with an ebullient love of life draws inspiration from the literature and poetry of death. A born loser with an “ex-wife, an ex-child, and no excuses” accompanies his alcoholic brother on a startling plunge into liberating despair. A self-styled vigilante avenges the death of his wife and child by waging a one-man war against the London underworld. A whiskey-sotted cleric sets out to battle his sexual demons with a resolve that borders on the malevolent.
“Nobody writes like Ken Bruen,” says the New York Times Book Review, and here, the author of The Emerald Lie and The Guards offers a taste of his wide-ranging skills. With his acrid barstool wit, literary allusions, and gut-punching twists, Bruen captures the Irish state of mind with bracing authenticity. Now, enthusiasts of his long-running series featuring Irish PI Jack Taylor—seven of which have been adapted for the screen—and new fans alike can discover Bruen’s early works in an omnibus shaded with the crazy, violent, and melancholy poetry that has become his trademark.
Hailed by the Los Angeles Book Review as one of “the most original and innovative noir voices of the last two decades,” Bruen is a two-time Shamus Award winner, an Edgar Award finalist, and a recipient of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière.
A Fifth of Bruen includes: Funeral: Tales of Irish Morbidities, Martyrs, Shades of Grace, Sherry and Other Stories, All the Old Songs and Nothing to Lose, and The Time of Serena May &Upon the Third Cross.
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About the Author
Ken Bruen (b. 1951) is one of the most prominent Irish crime writers of the last two decades. Born in Galway, he spent twenty-five years traveling the world before he began writing in the mid 1990s. As an English teacher, Bruen worked in South Africa, Japan, and South America, where he once spent a short time in a Brazilian jail. He has two long-running series: one starring a disgraced former policeman named Jack Taylor, the other a London police detective named Inspector Brant. Praised for their sharp insight into the darker side of today’s prosperous Ireland, Bruen’s novels are marked by grim atmosphere and clipped prose. Among the best known are his White Trilogy (1998–2000) and The Guards (2001), the Shamus award-winning first novel in the Jack Taylor series. Along with his wife and daughter, Bruen continues to live and work in Galway.
Read an Excerpt
A Fifth of Bruen
Early Fiction of Ken Bruen
By Ken Bruen
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2006 Ken Bruen
All rights reserved.
TALES OF IRISH MORBIDITIES
"Waste ... Remains?"
All there was to learn
of the wasteful
that's left behind.
Funerals can be fun. How's that for a positive attitude. I was thought-feeding this when a shadow loomed above my dwindling pint (of stout). Sean, a second-hand bookseller. I knew him well ... well in the Irish sense. I'd buy him a drink, and he'd tell me some secrets of the trade. The following one nigh on destroyed me. His name was Shaun after his year in America ... but he's over that now. I don't remind him of it ... often.
"A fella brought in five hardback Graham Greene's today."
"In good condition?"
"Pristine! Like they were never opened."
"And?" (I had to ignore that pristine.)
"He was in a fierce state from drink. I offered him a fiver."
"Did he take it?"
"He hemmed and hawed ... sweated ... shook, then snapt the fiver."
"God bless Graham Greene. I suppose it's a complete coincidence that he was a convert to Catholicism."
Sean gave me a worried look. Vaguely satisfied I wasn't needlin' him, he continued. I was, but that's neither here nor there.
"I was checking through the third book, and on page five there was a fiver ... on page ten there was a tenner ... on page twenty, a twenty ..."
"Stop! Stop for Godsakes ... I know alcoholism is a progressive disease, but this is cruelty itself." Sean idled with his pint. I dunno what visions the glass yielded. An endless line of first editions ... mebbe. I could stand it no longer.
"Okay ... okay ... tell me just this. How many pages in the book?"
"Two hundred and fifty," and he laughed. Deep. I didn't like him a whole lot then. But I had to know. Damnit. He knew that.
"Tell me the title then."
"The Human Factor."
"Oh, sweet Lord above ... that's vicious."
I allowed myself to notice him sucking on the glass. Do it. Go to it, I thought. I knew I'd hear a story like that on the day of a Monday funeral. What else! I looked at my watch. I should be moving for the 6:15. A crowd would already be gathered at the morgue. I hate the Monday funerals. But I knew I either give this thing my whole attention or forget it. Due to my own naivety, I'd missed the nine o'clock removal from the church. Recently, I'd been practicing a bracing honesty. Deadly stuff! I had also neglected to touch the talisman I'd written above my bed. It's a favourite G. K. Chesterton paradox. The one describing Elizabeth Barrett's life at home with her bullying father.
"She took a much
more cheerful view
of death than her father
did on life."
Mighty stuff. But I'd forgotten to touch it and paid the price. The Irish town I live in is undergoing a crisis of identity. Who isn't? It's large enough to warrant the dubious title of city but retains a provincial flavour.
I had hardly hit the main street when I saw O'Malley. It was too late to avoid him. So we did the Irish dance of polite verbal hostility.
"How are ya, Dillon?"
"Not bad. And yerself?"
"Fine, fine! Have you time for a coffee?"
Everything in me roared – No. No way – not ever ... so I said, "Yeah."
I was suffering from a glut of self-improvement books. A galaxy of inspirational tones were having an adverse, not to mention perverse, effect on my behaviour. Terms like confrontation, face your fears, and best your neuroses had me dizzy with integrity. I bought the coffee. Black for O'Malley ... like his nature. Whoops! A negative attitude. True though. O'Malley could never stand me. I decided to cut right through to this.
"You never liked me ... did you?"
He nearly dropped the coffee in his lap. "Wot?"
"Let's face it ... (good, positive approach) you hate the living sight of me. Would you like me to tell you why?"
"Cripes! Have you taken drink? ... anyway, why do you think I don't like you?"
"Because you can't understand why I don't need a crowd, why I hang out on my own. My independence grates on your nerves. But the reason you most dislike me is because I never mention the money you owe me."
"Ary ... you're as mad as a hatter. Everyone knows that."
"What's more, I can also tell you the reason I don't like you. It's a lot simpler ..."
"Who the hell cares, you're a bloody lunatic."
"I don't like you because you don't like me."
I got up then and left. Timing: it's all in the timing. By evening the story would be all over the town. T'was too late now to catch the nine o'clock hearse. I heard O'Malley roar, "Ya bollix," after me.
I notice nowadays that they like to spell this "bollix" in an up-market fashion. I'm a traditionalist and like the old forms. At least O'Malley had given me the old usage. Why didn't that make me feel better. The story by tonight would lack the financial aspect. By now O'Malley might even have converted it to me owing him the money. My father operated on a different type of diplomacy. He'd have taken O'Malley behind the guards' barracks and beat the living daylights outa him. One thing is certain, there wouldn't have been any roaring of names after him. Traditional, up-market or otherwise. They buried my father in 1980. Shortly after I began my first faltering steps on the funeral philosophy, my Irish instincts ensured that logic would play no part in the formation of this. Obvious works of reference like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I completely ignored. I knew instinctively that if the philosophy was to be practical, I'd have to steal, adapt, and plagarise wholesale. This I've done. The beauty was that familiarity could seem like the ring of truth. I had two fathers. The one who actually existed and the one I wish he'd been. In June 1980, I buried both. My mother is a non-runner. She died when I was three and is buried up in Louth. A fierce enough epitaph in itself. Drink killed my father. But in Ireland, very few died from drink. They die pist in car crashes, in drunken brawls, fall drunk from bridges, under cars while footless. But ... the death certificates list coronary failures and other euphemisms which leaves other drinkers free to the business at hand. My father died in the horrors ... screaming of funerals he'd never attended. This was relieved with rats and various low-life forms coming through the walls to him. I think he mentioned bank managers in there. He was sixty-two years of age and, moments before he died, he sat bolt upright, like the best clichés. I moved near for words of wisdom ... words of comfort ... mebbe. He grabbed my wrist. Many's the one since who regrets the last error of judgement. He should have gone for the throat. The stench of his breath was woeful. But I was going nowhere. The grip was ferocious. Betwixt a mixture of spittle and venom he roared, "Get to the funeral ..."
My then-girlfriend wasn't big on funerals. Marisa. Not your usual Irish name. Her mother had notions of grandeur and some gothic romance she'd been reading lodged in her memory. Her brother was less fortunate. He's Raoul Darcy. Try telling the knackers in the school yard you're Raoul....
I met her 'round about the time I'd got my first funeral notched up. I was a novice then and fairly shaken by the grief of the family.
No stranger to drink myself, I went to The Weir for some oblivion. I was building towards heaven when she sat down. I took note without interest. Early twenties, blond hair, dark eyes, roughly 5'2" and thin to the point of anorexia. Turned-up button nose and a "friendly" mouth, as they say here. The hair was fresh washed and with new leather and baked bread, my favourite fragrance. I dismissed her.
"Bit early ... is it?"
"Early, like early to be getting legless. Don't you have work then?" I played the gamut of responses,
– mind yer own business
– wot's it to you
– a belch.
So I said,
"I've just come from a funeral." She didn't disappoint. Her face was a mix of concern and curiosity.
"Oh! I'm sorry ... oh dear ... am ... was it someone close?"
"Let me get you a drink. Is that Jameson?"
"Oh right ... I mean, sorry ... I'll get it."
I watched her order the drink. I liked the air of calm she had. How far wrong can you go with a girl who'll get the drink? A coffee for her. I was reaching immunity and little cared.
"I'm fine, thanks."
"No, I mean ... what's your name?"
"Well, while my father was alive, I was always called young Dillon. Since he died, they dropped the 'young' ... which I'm not ... am ..."
"Not so young either ... anymore."
I was becoming befuddled. As this was the point of the exercise, I didn't struggle.
"Well, okay then. Dillon, so ... highly trendy."
"What! What are you on about?"
"Bob Dylan ... Dylan Thomas, you're right in there."
"I have to go now."
She looked startled. Good, I thought, and left.
A week passed. I slotted in ten funerals. I still hadn't come to grips with my vocation. Back to The Weir. I was putting down the first part of the funeral thoughts on paper. This was slow. Three glasses of Paddy were whispering "Why write, let go ..."
"Howya." I looked up. Her again.
"Oh ... hello ... Maura ...?"
"How are you?" She was staring at the empty glasses.
"Keep passing the empty glasses."
"Do you want a coffee ... a drink ... a sandwich ... a slap ..." she asked.
I nearly left then as she brought back two coffees.
"So ... are you well?"
"Mar ... i ... sa, yea, what do you want?"
She was caught. I wasn't into confrontation those days, only drink. It spoke loudly. You can put anything to the Irish except direct questions. The devil mend you, I thought ... in your grief it might help you to talk.
"You're a counsellor, are you?"
She could have given me a hiding there.
"I'll go. ..." I wanted that so I said, "No ... would you read this ... please?"
I passed the first part of "Funeral" to her. The title got a jump from her. I had written:
was the face – constrict
it took me years
to put together – crazed
of tragedy small played
upon a smaller stage
the farcial events
a random fate
believed not random
pushed my way
all the years I
I never heard
a funeral took place
But Ireland – always
we go the route
to mingle with
the welcome – back
your business first
– mere information
they'll with the deadliest
of smiles – free-set
a race that mocks it
to its very face
yet lives on dread
it might not hold
on walking slow
I feel the fear
beneath my very feet
It was early days. She laughed out loud.
"This is hilarious ... oh, I love that ... the notion of funerals with advertising."
I had expected scorn. Was I hoping for it? Her reaction meant we might have a chance.
"Don't you think it's a bit insane?" I asked.
"But of course I do ... that's why I love it. Can I have a copy?" Magic words.
I told her about my cousin then. He was twelve years in London. He never heard hint nor hide of funerals. He returned home and in his first month, went to eleven.
"Do the English not die?" she asked ... laughing.
"Well," I said, "like everything else they do it with the minimum of fuss. The Irish roar at it. They thrash it, shout at it, try to strangle it. It's as if by keeping it loud and brash, they can keep it controlled. Death has a fierce job of sneaking up on us." She was hooked. I continued. "The Irish greeting is 'how-yah, do you know who's dead.' I often feel like asking people if they've been to any good funerals lately. I hear people remark of funerals, like football matches – there was a good turn out."
Marisa was nodding furiously. On I went, cruising now, the drink nearly forgotten.
"Watch any Irish mother. They're full of chat, tea, and vitality. They get to the daily newspaper and straight to the obituaries. Never mind what's huggin' the headlines. They zero in and want to know who's dead. You get asked in complete seriousness, 'Is anybody I know – dead!' Then, 'Been to any good funerals lately?' A bit like going to the cinema. How long before they start reviewing them. I'm not coddin' you [which is the Irish preface to a lie], but I heard a woman say that a friend of hers died. Her companion asked the cause ... 'Oh, nothing serious' ..."
Marisa said, "Death, where is thy sting."
I had a bad moment when she did. Lord, I tried to blot it out. Our fragile communication was near beached on that. Roll with it. She hadn't yet mentioned Dylan Thomas's hackneyed poem ... hope lived, if you'll excuse the irony. I continued.
"I heard an American ask where he could find a real 'wake.' I think it was probably listed under the 'not to be missed section' of his guidebook. I dunno of any other country where the corpse gets to be the guest of honour ... the final entertainment. Our whole vocabulary hinges on the closeness of death. Sick aren't just sick, they're at death's door. To describe the pits, you only mention you felt like death warmed up."
I was whacked, so I took a hefty whack of the Paddy.
Mistake! It let her commit the dreaded one.
"Did you ever hear of the Dylan Thomas poem on the death of his father?"
"No." Very quiet I said that.
"Oh ... well it goes, 'Do not go gentle into that good night.'"
"I see." My heart was pounding.
"I must get you a copy," she ended.
Worse and worse. Visions of her reading this to me over open caskets began to shape. I stood up.
"All the best now ... goodbye." And I fled.
A measure of my terror was the glass of whiskey I left behind. Did you ever? I knew I'd dream of her mouthing "Rage rage against the dying of the light. ..." No amount of whiskey would remove that taste. I did what I could. I crawled into the nearest card shop and, sure enough, a flurry of Desideratas were scattered expensively. It's my heritage to try to erase nausea with saccharin. The platitudes induced the inertia ... not the ideal solution, but I couldn't crawl into a bottle if I was to work later. My mother left one legacy. A leather-bound copy of Thomas Moore's "Irish Melodies." The dialogue between living and dead is captured in "O, Ye Dead" ... which lines I memorized:
"It is true, it is true, we are shadows cold and wan;
and the fair and the brave whom we loved on earth are gone; ...
That ere, condemn'd we go
To freeze 'mid Hecla's snow.
We would taste it awhile and think we live once more! ..."
I spoke to a fellah who frequented the early morning houses by the docks. He had no doubts about resurrection. According to him, the dead lined up each morning. No conversation. Absolute quiet. An hour after opening, the "curses" took effect and the "dead" indeed came back to alcoholic life.
All through Joyce is the theme of the dead returning. In Ulysses, Stephen sees corpses rising from their graves like vampires ... to deprive the living of the joy. Like the Inland Revenue. "The Dead" begins with a party and ends with a corpse. Like Finnegan's Wake, you get the blend of "funferal" and "funeral." America sags under the weight of Joycean study. My own favourite piece of Joycean lore was uttered by his daughter Lucia. Hearing of her father's death she said ... in disbelief:
"What is he doing under the ground, that idiot. When will he decide to come out? He's watching us all the time."
Who's to say.
I work as a security guard. It's not in preparation for better things. I have no aspirations to act or better myself. The shift system is ideal for my funeral timetable. When I told my father, he laughed.
"It takes you all your time to mind your own business."
Neither of us noted the significance of his next remark.
"Anyway, it's your funeral."
The Weir and Marisa were now indistinguishable. Over the bar, I knew I had to change my behaviour. For the moment I settled for changing my drink.
"A Jameson please?"
A fellah was nodding into his pint. He looked up.
"Did you ever see God?" he asked.
Excerpted from A Fifth of Bruen by Ken Bruen. Copyright © 2006 Ken Bruen. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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