Many American readers are familiar with Ken Bruen from his four
acclaimed hard-boiled mysteries featuring Jack Taylor, a drug and
booze addicted Galway private eye. If you only know Bruen's work
from the Taylor series, you're in for a treat. For Bruen is also
the author of a police procedural series set in southeast London,
featuring the amoral Sergeant Brant.
CALIBRE is the sixth entry in the series that began in 1998. This
is one of those books that once you read it, you immediately will
have to search out and buy all the other books featuring Brant and
his fellow constables. It's so enjoyable and fast-paced that if
you're like me, you'll want to catch up with everything you
Bruen, who lives in Galway, Ireland, is a brilliant, creative,
original voice. He is a writer clearly seeped in the American
hard-boiled and noir tradition; he had been called a "Celtic
Dashiell Hammett." And indeed, if you are Irish, you instinctively
know about the dark side of life even before you learn to read.
History resonates. But part of being Irish is to leaven the bad
stuff with a caustic, fatalistic, often-hilarious sense of humor.
And that is evident in Bruen's work.
The constables in CALIBRE work in a section of London where the
kids view the police in an atmosphere of "hostility on speed" and
cops carry around "simmering rage." This social tension is bound to
produce trouble. Enter the "manners psycho."
In a letter taunting the cops, he makes clear his goals: "Anyone,
and I mean anyone, who behaves like an a------ in public shall be
terminated." This mission, he writes in his journal, is "my reality
Now here is a serial killer for modern times. This is a serial
killer who would require weapons of mass destruction and a large
appointment book. His first victim viciously berates his girlfriend
in a café, reducing her to tears. He meets his grim fate when
he is pushed in front of a Brit Rail train. Victim number two is a
harried female executive who curses out a cab driver. The killer
simply follows her into her office building and tosses her out the
The constables of the Southeast London "Met" who get the case have
issues of their own. Brant, we learn, "was heavily built with a
black Irish face that wasn't so much lived in as squatted upon."
Inspector Roberts is trying to keep alive his perfect record of
solving cases while finding the funds to buy clothes he thinks are
stylish but aren't. Female Constable Falls is trying to resurrect
her career after a disastrous earlier case lands her literally in
the basement. Porter Nash has to deal with being both diabetic and
gay. PC McDonald is badly burned out, terrified after being shot on
Throughout this book, Bruen pays homage to the American masters of
noir, which Brant likes to call "Nora." At one point, the serial
killer, a crooked accountant by trade, tells us, "America
appreciates a decent killer." It is probably something that won't
make the travel brochures, but both our killer and Brant read and
love American mysteries.
The killer is a big fan of Jim Thompson and takes his pen name,
Ford, after the protagonist of THE KILLER INSIDE ME. He also
dreams, lucky for us, of coming to America, where he will "Get me a
pick-up, rifle on the rack, dog on the front seat, a coonhound of
course, Hank Williams on the speakers."
Sergeant Brant owns the entire Ed McBain 87th Precinct
series and is inspired, sort of, to write a book after McBain's
character, Fat Ollie Weeks, does the same in FAT OLLIE'S BOOK.
Brant could be Fat Ollie's English cousin, only far worse.
Bruen clearly models this series after the 87th Precinct
novels. He establishes the individual story lines of the cops and
weaves them seamlessly throughout the book. But the comparison ends
there, and Bruen provides his Irish, ironic twist. McBain wrote his
series to honor the hard-working, high-integrity cops; Bruen turns
that notion on its head.
Bruen's series is kind of the 87th Precinct drunk on power
and twisted by drugs and personal demons. In other words, the
Take Brant, for example, who has more in common with Thompson
killer cop Sheriff Ford than McBain's hero cop, Carella. Brant
steals dope from drug dealers, has sex with hookers who are also
witnesses, lies, manipulates people at will, drugs other cops,
breaks into homes and seems to be not above murdering bad guys
without a trial.
What a delightful bad good guy or good bad guy. He is described by
others in the book as "attractive in a mad dog fashion" and a
"brute force." His prospective literary agent, who he has just
bedded in yet another ethical lapse, calls him "you animal." "His
history was littered with darkness, and the way he survived that
was to keep it locked up tight," Bruen writes.
But through it all, there is plenty of dark humor and a hell of a
lot of fun, as readers can't wait to see what Brant will do next.
He is, after all, an excellent detective.
Bruen is a terrific writer and he might have created the police
procedural for the early 21st century. Remember that McBain started
his series in the more innocent and optimistic 1950s. Bruen paints
a picture of an existential world where sometimes really bad guys
will do things for good reasons and basically good guys do really
bad things. But hope never dies. The book ends with the words of
poor Porter Nash:
"Worse, somewhere in his mind was the mad notion that the cops were
still the good guys, but this proved they were seriously
deranged…Mainly, he was saddened. Sighing, he figured that
he'd do what he did best, continue to fight the bedraggled
If you read CALIBRE, you are going to do exactly what I did: go
right online and order another Brant story. Ken Bruen writes fast;
this is his 17th book. That is very good news for mystery fans, who
can look forward to many more years of Sergeant Brant and Jack
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 26, 2010