I don’t know how long Ken Bruen’s been writing, but I finally read a couple of his novels recently. One of my favorite writing styles is that sparse yet pithy form of storytelling which I think is what (at least some) people mean when they talk about the “hardboiled” style. Two of my favorite writers are Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway– both of whom’s styles I personally would label hardboiled.
Bruen’s style is quite sparse. The text is shot-out in short bursts. Not infrequently, in a practically patented move of Bruen’s, three short phrases in a row are each allotted their own paragraph. Bang bang bang. Lotsa white space on the page. You get the picture.
The author’s cant is a slangy but not too slangy mix of Irishisms, Londonisms, and Americanisms (though the Americanisms are disdained and apologized for right there in the text).
In the two books I read, London Boulevard and The Guards, the first-person narrator is a tough guy, plenty flawed. In fact, as I will get into later, although he is not meant to be, the main character in both books is more or less the same person. In fact, what we have here is more or less the same book written over.
Because our narrator is so tough and jaded, the descriptions of the violence it contains come through a filter of detachment and bitter humor. In both books, the author rolls off lists of bibliophilic references, mostly in the crime novel genre. Lee Marvin’s character in the movie Point Blank is praised in both books– and even the same jokes and lines are virtually repeated in the two books… I’m thinking here of sections such as this doubly appearing one (paraphrasing the repeated section slightly)… “You say your name like it’s supposed to mean something. Don’t mean shit to me.”
I’m sure Bruen’s fans take comfort in the similarity of his books, like the return of an old friend whose mannerisms, stories, and jokes you’ve heard before. For me, however, I found the use of cookie-cutter sections disappointing. One of my own great trepidations as a writer is that I will accidentally write virtually the same book over again. Even in this three-year blog, I never like it when I catch myself repeating myself– no matter how eminently quotable I am.
An oddity of both books is how Bruen is all over the place, temporally speaking. In one paragraph it’s as if he has chosen the 1970s for his setting. In another, we’re in the 1990s or later. In one paragraph, there’s talk of John Lennon and quaaludes– in another, there are references to cellphones and Red Bulls.
I didn’t check the date of composition of either book, but except for a few modern references, these stories could be taking place in the 1950s. They have guns and cars; they go to bars; they actually write notes to each other and meet in person… Computers and hi-tech gadgetry play almost no role at all. Dan Brown it ain’t.
If utilized by a defter hand, a reader could pretend that Bruen was going for a “timeless” feel– but, frankly, it’s not that artistic– not in that way at least. The art comes in the form of wit, and that alleged soul of wit– brevity.
Some of my favorite lines include: “As long as you can dance, you’re ahead” (said by Jack Taylor’s father), and –though it’s not original– the joke about a certain disappointment of a bloke in the book having “a bright future behind him.”
Every now and then Bruen’s style backfires, as with the description he gives in one place of a busted proboscis… “My nose hurts like a dead horse,” the narrator declaims. What the hell is THAT supposed to convey? Heavy like a horse? Or is the author asserting that dead horses not only feel, but that they are in pain?
Of the two books, the better is London Boulevard. It’s closer, dare I say it, to literature. Also, the story’s put together a little better; I found myself being a little more curious as to what was going to happen next. If you like Mickey Spillane’s best work, I think you’d like London Boulevard.