Ken Bruen is a literary country unto himself. No one is writing books quite like his right now, or maybe ever. Bruen is arguably best known for his Jack Taylor novels, of which THE DEVIL is the seventh and latest in the series. Taylor is not an entirely likable or sympathetic character: he is quick to anger, inclined to backslide into his various substance addictions, an all-around “grumpy Gus,” as he might be described. A former police guard and presently a Galway private investigator (I am not entirely sure if that status is official, but there you are), Taylor is a dark and brooding everyman who rarely walks away intact from his various sundry and sordid encounters. But he does walk away, which is more than can be said for his adversaries. At least in most cases.
In THE DEVIL, Taylor meets the man who will perhaps be his ultimate foil. The book begins with Taylor preparing to fly to the United States, only to be denied at the last minute due to an old transgression that has come back to haunt him at the worst possible moment. He retreats to the airport bar, where he proceeds to seek the type of faux clarity that can be found at the clear bottom of a cocktail glass. It is there that he is approached by a gentleman named Kurt (“with a K”) who is just a tad too familiar with his past and a bit too aggressively friendly. Taylor shakes him off and returns to Galway. His imaginary friend, known variously as “Karl” or “Mr. K,” begins to slowly insinuate himself into his life, or more particularly, into the lives of his friends and associates, all to evil and very ill effect.
Taylor all too quickly suspects that Mr. K is not an ordinary adversary, and the manner, width and breadth of his evil bespeaks a power that was not created on this earth. The rough hand behind the occurrence of past events in the series are called into question, as is a brief but extremely frightening moment when the issue of Taylor’s heritage is raised. The novel’s conclusion is extremely ambiguous; Taylor either wins this one, draws, or is being drawn into a loss where his life will be the least of the things he will forfeit. And perhaps there is a metaphor here as well: when we put our demons to rest, it is often a respite, but never a state of permanence.
Bruen’s unique narrative style may take some getting used to for the uninitiated, but is so enveloping that it becomes a new normal. His longtime practice of dropping quotations authored by himself and others by the handful throughout his books is here as well and most welcome. There’s one, from THE DARK FIELDS by Alan Glynn, that everyone of a certain age will appreciate. I actually stopped reading THE DEVIL long enough to call a number of friends and read it to them (but you will have to get the book and read it yourself!).
Bruen also cycles the series back in upon itself in a very interesting way. One of my favorite episodes of “The Simpsons” includes a very short vignette whereby the family is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and giant balloons of Homer, Marge and the others float by. They all miss seeing it, of course, except for Maggie. Bruen does a similar thing to Taylor. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. And don’t miss THE DEVIL, yet another strong book in a series that simply gets better and better.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 3, 2011