Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading Ken Bruen?

Image via Magnet Magazine

Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading? is a feature where the columnist spotlights a writer who has a dedicated following and is well known within the writing community, but hasn't achieved the elephant-in-the-room style success of a Stephen King or Gillian Flynn—But they deserve to, dammit! Hopefully the column will help gain the author featured a few more well deserved readers.

There are three writers who I simply can't read when I'm writing a lot of fiction. Writers whose voices are so strong and distinct that they go beyond influencing my writing and completely invade it and take over my own voice. The three writers are:

James Ellroy
Raymond Carver
Ken Bruen

This is particularly true of Bruen. The bluntly poetic cadence of his writing, his self-destructive characters, the unsparing violence,
and, of course,
writing everything
in stanza like lists,
and short, muscular
declarative sentences. 

Such as:

When I read Ken Bruen, my own prose style is fucked. Utterly fucked.

But Bruen's style is addictive to say the least, and along with John Connolly and Adrian McKinty, he helped bring about a wave of innovative Irish crime writers in the 2000's that has yet to crest.

The Skinny aka Just The Facts and Nothing But The Facts

Ken Bruen was born in Galway, Ireland (where he currently resides), and was educated at Gormanston College, County Meath, and later at Trinity College Dublin, where he earned a Ph.D. in metaphysics. He spent 25 years working abroad as an English teacher with stints in Africa, Japan, S.E. Asia and South America. Bruen is the author of over 30 novels, including the popular Jack Taylor series (which was adapted into a television series by  TV3) and the Brant and Roberts series (The fourth novel in the series, Blitz, was adapted into a film staring Jason Statham and Paddy Constantine).

The Work aka Why You Should Be Reading This Guy

A) The lists
B) The prose poetry
C) The declarative sentences
D) The self-destructive characters
E) The unrepentant violence
F) All of the above

The correct answer is F, but you guessed that already, didn't you? As odd as Bruen’s style seems (particularly in the context of an abstract, semi-critical essay), it works completely and manages to suck the reader in through its simplicity; through its rhythmic structure, and the overall vulnerability of Bruen’s characters. Yes, Bruen’s characters are reprobates of the worst kind. They’re masochistic, bent on their own undoing via drugs, booze, violence, sex—more often than not, combined into a voluble noir sandwich. The best example of which is Bruen’s hallmark character, the doomed Galway P.I., Jack Taylor.

Taylor is much like most well-known characters within the private investigator genre. He is haunted, emotionally and physically wounded, and unable to walk away from his profession no matter how terrifying and crippling it may be to his abused psyche. Over the course of the 10 novels in the Taylor series, virtually every human terror has been visited upon him. He’s been beaten, shot, tortured, has had fingers cut off, his teeth kicked in. His friends and loved ones have been killed or have completely abandoned him because of the self-destructive aura which surrounds him. And Taylor slogs through it all, burying his troubles under gallons of Jameson and Guinness; under pounds of coke and Xanax.

And yet, as de-humanized as Taylor becomes, he persists with an odd sort of optimism, convincing himself that life will be better once he stops drinking, smoking, and delivering himself into the hands of oblivion. But you know none of this will ever happen. You know that it is too late for Taylor to ever be redeemed for his sins, because he wears them all too comfortably; because without the guilt of his past transgressions and the dozens of lives he’s left in ruins, perhaps Jack Taylor will simply cease to exist, because he just doesn’t do happiness.

Where To Start aka What Book Should I Read First, Smart Guy?

There are two schools of thought when comes to where to start reading Bruen: Before Bruen’s seminal novel of the Irish fascination with the American dream, American Skin, or after American Skin. I’m of the camp that before American Skin is where you want to start. Hell, start with American Skin and work backwards. The best reasons to start before American Skin are numerous, including the first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards,  but mostly it has to do with Bruen’s second best known creation, Detective Sergeant Brant.

Like Taylor, Brant is bent on self-destruction. But unlike Taylor, who rages against his vices and demons, Brant fully embraces them. Brant is a dedicated cop, but he also has no problem with ripping off drug dealers for a fix, or acting as a pimp to score a little extra cash to make up for his poverty level existence, or in killing a suspect that he doesn’t have enough evidence on, but who he knows is guilty. With Brant, the job gets done, you just don’t want to look too closely at how he accomplishes his goals. If you want to fully embrace the barely contained insanity of Sergeant Brant, make sure to check out the first three books in the series, A White Arrest, Taming The Alien, and The McDead, all of which are conveniently package in a single book, The White Trilogy.

Now you’re probably thinking: You know, this guy Bruen seems really interesting, but fuck, every novel seems to be blacker than the next (and no, you’re not too far off base with thinking that). Well, the cure for that is Bruen’s collaborative Hard Case Crime trilogy written with Jason Starr: Bust, Slide, and The Max. Now don’t get me wrong, these three books are plenty dark, but the story of coked-up, legend in his own mind, Max Fisher and his mistress, Angela, contains some outright belly laughs as the two fumble their way through various murders and swindles gone bad.

Like all of the authors I've featured in Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading, anywhere you begin your journey with Ken Bruen is sure to be deeply satisfying.

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies October 30, 2013 - 12:13pm

big fan, good stuff

Utah's picture
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry October 30, 2013 - 12:20pm

The answer to the question in your headline is that I read his short story, featured in Hardcore Hardboiled, "Brant Bites Back".  Maybe he was just phoning it in, I don't know, but I was way unexcited with reading any more Ken Bruen when I got to the end.

However, while I was reading it I did think to myself, "Man, this Brant guy really seems a lot like the main character in Blitz." 

nanakatt's picture
nanakatt from Evanston,Il USA is reading Ruben Martinez' Desert America October 30, 2013 - 12:23pm

Long time Ken Bruen fan!!

thanks for review/article...

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones October 30, 2013 - 1:23pm

@Utah - Try out American Skin, and I guarantee you'll want to read more.

Utah's picture
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry October 30, 2013 - 2:08pm

I'll give it a go.  But it's Bruen's last chance with me!

If it doesn't work out, I'm sure he will rue the day, or something like that.

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff October 30, 2013 - 6:04pm

The only Bruen I've read so far is Once Were Cops. I liked it, was pretty good. I enjoyed his writing style. I'll have to pick up American Skin next.

Ken Bruen's picture
Ken Bruen October 31, 2013 - 10:17am


         Where to begin?

god bless your wondrous heart.

You not only made my  whole year but indeed many of those to hopefully come.

Thank you so very




kaha58's picture
kaha58 December 13, 2013 - 5:43pm

Great column!  I love Mr. Bruen!  Love him...I listen to the audiobooks b/c I drive all over the state of FL.  Helps to pass the time. Gerard Doyle (narrator) is Brilliant!  I have also seen the DVDs of the JT Series!

Just finished Purgatory and I think Jack Taylor is the most hilarious in this!!  Love the sarcasm!  I have been to Ireland 4 times, family is from Athlone and Ballinamore Bridge Co Galway.  I get a kick from hearing about all the places we have visited and patronized in Galway & Salthill and environs.  

And how cool that Mr Bruen checked in himself! Well done Keith!

Thanks Keith, and go raibh maith agat Ken Bruen!  

PS Aidrian McKinty's Michael Forsythe and Sean Duffy Series are great too reads too!

Dana King's picture
Dana King January 4, 2017 - 7:01am

I have to be careful about reading Ken's books when I'm working on one of my own, though it's not always bad thing. I read ONCE WERE COPS last week and it did me good to be reminded of the power of simple declarative sentences, as I can get a little sloppy stringing cluases together with commas. His writing is both clean and poetic, regardless of the subject matter or depravity at hand.

I've not read AMERICAN SKIN but will be sure to now. One book I don't often seen mentioned in his oeuvre is my personal favorite, LONDON BOULEVARD, a fascinating homage to SUNSET BOULEVARD, which was turned into a movie worthy ofthe source material.