With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, ONCE WERE COPS has
broadened the definition of noir crime fiction. Ken Bruen always
has gone his own dark way while exploring such matters; here,
however, he takes a quantum leap into territory previously hinted
at but nonetheless unexplored. The bad guys in this book are awful,
but the good ones are worse, and the plot careens through the pages
like a car with brake failure trying to negotiate the downward
slope of a coastal highway chock-full of switchbacks.
ONCE WERE COPS picks up where Bruen’s Jack Taylor series
leaves off. Taylor even makes a brief appearance, thus effecting a
continuity, however tangential, between that series and what is
sure to be the beginning of a new one. Michael O’Shea ---
“Shay” to his acquaintances --- is a member of The
Guards, Ireland’s police force. Through out-and-out
blackmail, Shay is able to connive his way into a law enforcement
exchange program between Ireland and the United States, thus
becoming a member of New York’s finest. Shay is not exactly
welcome and seems initially to be a fish out of water, even as he
makes contact with Irish expatriates.
However, his pairing with a veteran cop named Kebar is an
epiphany. Kebar is badly twisted, a dangerous man who is owned by
the Mob. The etiology of Kebar’s sell-out is his mentally
disabled sister; every dollar he earns, honestly and otherwise,
goes to her care. His anger at life’s injustice, combined
with Shay’s smoldering dark side, makes for a violent but
effective crime-fighting tool. But when the mob tries to bring Shay
into its fold, what little control he had breaks, and the fish out
of water reveals itself as an amphibious piranha. Bruen gives his
readers dribs and drabs of Shay’s true nature, at times with
such a subtle flourish that one needs to re-read a passage here and
there in order to fully understand that whatever pre-conceived
notion one had about him was totally wrong.
If Bruen had wanted to write a book about a really bad
lieutenant in the making, he could have taken ONCE WERE COPS to its
logical conclusion and wound up with an unforgettable stand-alone
work. Alternatively, he could have used this novel as an
introduction to a series about an extremely bent rogue cop on the
streets of New York. Instead, Bruen goes a different way.
Shay’s involvement with an Irish woman named Nora and her
subsequent brutal murder bring another element into the mix.
Nora’s brother Joe is a retired New York cop living in
Florida. His sub rosa investigation into the killing reveals truths
that are a shock to him, and to the reader. By the end, Joe’s
investigation is only beginning. Yet, given what has gone before,
can even Joe be trusted?
ONCE WERE COPS is an amazing book, full of twists and turns and
genre-busting events. Bruen pokes and probes at dark corners where
even spiders refuse to tread. This is a work of brilliance, of
nightmares, an instant classic that is sure to become a standard of
noir fiction to which all others will be measured.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 13, 2011