Irish Crime Writer Ken Bruen on Alcoholism, Sick Priests, and Neo-Nazis

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An interview with the author of the Jack Taylor series, whose latest book comes out this week

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Reg Gordon Photos

Dr. Ken Bruen—he is surely the first master of crime fiction to have a doctorate in metaphysics—was born in Galway in 1951 and educated at Gormanston College and Trinity College, Dublin (where he earned his PhD). Since then he has traveled the world, holding jobs from English teacher in South America (where he did time in a Brazilian jail) to a security guard at the World Trade Center. His first novel, Shades of Grace, was published in 1993; he has subsequently written nearly 30 novels with titles like Rilke on Black (1996), The McDead (2000), and Dispatching Baudelaire (2004). Bruen's books are known for their dark, brutal humor laced with a crisp dialogue far more akin to the works of classic American crime writers than those of the more genteel Irish tradition.

He is best known, though, for the nine novels featuring Jack Taylor, a hard-drinking former policeman scraping out a living as a private eye in Galway. Already a favorite in Ireland and the U.K., Bruen is threatening to become a mass cult figure in the U.S. as well as a critical favorite. "Bruen," wrote Patrick Anderson in the Washington Post of the first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards, "is original, grimly hilarious, and gloriously Irish. I await the further adventures of the incorrigible Jack Taylor."

The latest Taylor novel, Headstone, is out today from Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic. Bruen answered these questions from his home in Galway.


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Mysterious Press

I'm seeing you called "the Pope of Galway" and "the Godfather of Irish crime fiction." Who pinned these on you?

I have no idea, but what it does is make me feel old, very. But you know, I'm also being called "Bukowski on crystal meth," the Prince of Darkness, and my favorite, an "intellectual guttersnipe"—a sideswipe at my PhD in metaphysics.

Your detective, Jack Taylor, must be the best-read detective in the history of fiction. I think yours are the first crime novels I've ever read that quote Yeats, Nietzsche, and Ruskin—among numerous others. But is it true that there were no books in your house when you were growing up and your father said he didn't want you to be a writer?

The only book in our home was the Bible. My parents forbade books. They thought I needed help because I wanted to be a writer! My father believed a real man didn't read, and my parents hoped I'd get some sense and find a job in insurance.

Much of what Jack reads is crime fiction. What crime fiction did you read when you were young? Were there any specific influences?

I got the gift of a library card when I was ten and found a discarded box in the library. They let me keep it and, oh, phew, what a treasure! All the Black Mask editions, Gold Medal books, all the pulps. So my influences then and now are American. They formed me as a writer and still do. Heresy in Ireland—where I'm supposed to worship Joyce, Beckett, and the other suspects.

When you say American pulp writers do you mean Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain?

Yes, James M. Cain is my favorite, with David Goodis riding point.

Who are the modern crime writers that you most admire?

James Sallis, Daniel Woodrell, Tom Piccirilli, C.J. Box.

May I ask if you have read the works of a Dublin crime writer named Benjamin Black and what you thought of them?

A.k.a. John Banville, the Booker Prize winner. Great to see the literary icons turning to mystery.

I think readers who have a sentimental view of Ireland are a bit shocked to find out how corrupt the clergy in your novels are. Are you exaggerating there?

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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