At first read, Jack Taylor is hardly a unique literary creation: a cop-turned-PI with an unorthodox work ethic and a drinking problem. But Irish author Ken Bruen further imbues his creation with a love of cocaine and pills, not to mention enough moral ambiguity to drown his former best friend and sleep with the distraught mother of a teen whose death he's investigating. It's this dark, edgy style that has made him a U.S. cult favorite. Bruen's books -- such as the latest Taylor installment, The Magdalen Martyrs, which he'll read from and sign this week at Murder by the Book -- also double as Irish social history (if not always the version the tourism board would promote).
The treat for local audiences, though, is the publication of Bruen's short story Murder by the Book. Named for the longtime Houston bookshop (which this year will receive an Edgar Award, the mystery-novel-world equivalent of an Oscar), it's also the debut work out of Busted Flush Press, the literary brainchild of MBTB's David Thompson. A crime tale set in Houston, the story features cameos by Thompson and fellow employee McKenna Jordan (a real-life couple) and local sites such as the Kelvin Arms pub, the Warwick Hotel and Goode Co. Barbeque.
In Bruen's much-anticipated Magdalen Martyrs, Taylor tracks down a former employee of the notorious Magdalen Laundries, the real-life convent where "wayward" Irish girls supposedly were sent for strict Catholic rehabilitation, but in truth were used as slave labor, abused, raped -- and sometimes killed.
"I grew up beside the laundry and asked me dad who those women were, and he said, 'Those poor creatures committed no sin but poverty,' " Bruen says. "It's been hidden from Irish history for so long I had to include it."
Like many of his characters, Bruen has lived a helter-skelter life, including stints as a security guard at the World Trade Center and as a bit actor in shlocky Roger Corman films. He was fired from several other occupations because of his hard drinking.
And like his Magdalencharacters, he knows the hell of confinement. In 1979, while on a teaching assignment in Brazil, Bruen and three foreigners witnessed a vicious bar fight and were rounded up and thrown in jail. For four months, the group was habitually beaten, tortured and raped. Two of them died from dysentery. After release, a dazed Bruen had to find something to escape the "induced catatonia"; his exit became voracious reading and writing. "As an introduction, your head is dunked in a bucket of excrement," Bruen says of those dark days. "So I decided to write books, just to prove to myself that I was still alive, if nothing else."
But that's the past, and Bruen is now an adamant fan of U.S. crime fiction, calling most UK writers in the genre "stilted, lame and tired." He also feels quite an attraction for Texas. "Man, I love that state!" he says. The Irish "share a lot of the same affinities: meat, beer, whiskey and hospitality. I even love the cowboy boots! Although I wish I had the grit to wear them!"