The Guards

For the last few months, I’ve read all over the web how amazing Ken Bruen’s books are. I was lucky enough to meet him at Bouchercon and thought he was a hell of a nice guy. So I bought a few of his books and set them aside to read on a rainy day.

That day came yesterday. And at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I don’t get what all the excitement is about. I read THE GUARDS, about an alcoholic ex-cop investigating the suicide of a young girl. While the book was definitely well-written, with a sharp, economical style, I can’t tell you how tired I am of alcoholic cops, alcoholic ex-cops, and alcoholic private eye heroes whose lives are spiraling out of control because they can’t stop drinking.

While he didn’t write with cliches, the lead character himself was certainly one. Jack Taylor is a self-destructive cop thrown off the force for being a drunk. And he’s caught in an endless spiral of drinking and self-destruction he seems powerless to stop. Yadda Yadda Yadda. Enough. I’m not reading any more books about alcoholic cops, ex-cops and PIs. I’ve had my fill.

Bruen’s cliched, alcoholic loner hero might have been easier to take if the mystery was the least bit compelling…but it wasn’t. The mystery wasn’t a mystery. It was hardly even a story. The hero "solved" the crime by being passed out most of the time. Peripheral characters literally walked right up to him and volunteered information he needed. I couldn’t have cared less about the hero…or the resolution of the story.

While I liked much of Bruen’s prose, I felt he overindulged in pointless gramatical tricks that actually diminished the impact of his work. The self-conscious formatting tricks started on page one:

It’s almost impossible to be thrown out of the Garda Siochana. You have to really put your mind to it. Unless you’ve become a public disgrace, they’ll tolerate most anything.

I’d been to the wire. Numerous



Last chances


And I still didn’t shape up. Or rather sober up.

Bruen also over-indulges using quotes from other mystery novels, not just as heading to his chapters, but within the prose itself. There’s no doubt he’s a great writer… I just wish I liked his characters and his storytelling as much as his way with words.

22 thoughts on “The Guards”

  1. I think you’ve been in DIAGNOSIS: MURDER-land too long if you’re making these gripes about THE GUARDS. The things you think are “trying too hard” are what rasies it above and beyond. Very voicy, and it reminds me off the first time I encountered James Ellroy with WHITE JAZZ. That book had a profound impact on me, and THE GUARDS is in the same league.
    Grammatical tricks? Lists? That weakens the work? Me thinks I hear an old fogey speaking.
    I’ll just say it like this: You’re really really way off.
    Anthony Neil Smith

  2. I didn’t like WHITE JAZZ much either…I much preferred the earlier Elroy stuff. I’ll agree Ken Bruen has a nice strong voice…I just wasn’t wowed by the character or what passed for a plot.

  3. THE GUARDS wasn’t a mystery. It was noir, which generally isn’t known for its sympathetic protags or any particular mystery. About halfway through, I would have been very surprised if Jack Taylor really did solve the mystery, though the ending reminded me a lot of Mike Hammer (just more poetic.)
    And I’ll be the first to admit, noir is an acquired taste. But man is it addictive once acquired.

  4. I have more to say about it tomorrow, but like Jim, I viewed THE GUARDS, and Bruen’s body of work in general, as noir fiction, even–gasp–“literary crime,” whatever the hell that means.
    Also, IMO, the *real* plot was Taylor’s struggle with his demons. And the not-so-latent anger. The rest was window-dressing.

  5. Hey, I *love* noir. But the story, such as it was, wasn’t compelling in any way. There wasn’t any narrative momentum to it…neither the author nor the character seemed the least bit invested in it. Fine. I can live with that. Problem was, Taylor wasn’t compelling either. I’ve seen the drunken, self-destructive cop/detective so many, many, many times before…and I didn’t see anything fresh in Bruen’s take on this same oh-so-familiar stereotype. I kept waiting for something, anything, to grab me… but it never came. There’s no doubt Bruen is a fine writer…so I’ll give him another try…I’ll just pick one of his books that doesn’t feature Taylor (oddly, his many quotes from other noir/detective novels only reminded me how much better those books were than the one I was reading).
    I still remember the first time I read MIAMI BLUES. *That* was a fresh take on the down-trodden, self-destructive homicide detective (it was already a cliche twenty years ago). Hoke Moseley was a true original… and stayed that way through the books that followed. I felt the same way about James Crumley’s DANCING BEAR and THE LAST GOOD KISS…and Richard Barre’s THE INNOCENTS… stunning, fresh takes on the traditional PI stereotype. To me, those were great books…with plots almost as fresh as the characters. They deserved all the hoopla that surrounded them…I don’t think THE GUARDS is in the same league. I don’t see what’s so special about it, though clearly, I am in the minority…

  6. Oh dear God, you want to talk about one big flaming cliche, let’s talk about THE LAST GOOD KISS. Suppossedly this has one one the greatest opening lines ever, but I never got it. It starts with a PI in a bar. Big whoop, he’s looking at an ugly dog. Big whoop. I loved THE GUARDS. And what sets it apart from all of the other ex-cop, drunk, loner, PI’s is that THERE ARE NO PI’S IN IRELAND. He’s definately one of a kind.

  7. I already said what I wanted over at Sarah’s. I’m interested in this idea of getting sick of a particular kind of book, though. I never tire of the alcoholic/ex-alcoholic loner plot, in the same way that some people never get sick of the boy meets girl story. In its weakest incarnations (Kathy Reichs!), you feel the “struggle with alcohol” is there as some token “conflict” like what you’d learn about in a how-to book. But as far as I am concerned the struggle against the desire to completely and massively self-destruct is the great story in life! Lee, thanks for this thought-provoking post–even though I completely disagree with you… Do read the Brixton novels & see what you think. The ending of THE DRAMATIST is also about the only thing that’s made me cry for years.

  8. This discussion about THE GUARDS has made me think back fondly about how it felt to discover a great noir author for the first time…
    For example, I remember picking up Daniel Woodrell’s THE ONES YOU DO in England….an American author I’d never heard of…and the pure exhiliration I felt reading his book. The characters, the plot, the writing…pure brilliance. I devoured every other book he’d written. And by the way, he’s still turning out amazing work.
    I felt the same way when I finally discovered Harry Whittington a few months ago, starting with A MOMENT TO PREY…and, shortly before that, when I read Dan Marlowe’s stunning classic THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH. Those were great books…just to name a few.
    To me, THE GUARDS is a tightly-written cliche that offers nothing new (and isn’t in the same league as an average Whittington). The only thing that really stands out about the book is the anger and self-loathing that soaks every page. For me, that’s not enough…certainly not to overpower the tired cliche at the center of the slim story.

  9. As soon as I posted that comment, a couple other examples came to mind… Victor Gischler’s GUN MONKEYS. Vicki Hendricks MIAMI PURITY. William Hoffman’s TIDEWATER BLOOD. Scott Phillips’ ICE HARVEST. Everything by Charles Willeford. Donald Westlake’s PARKER books. Gary Disher’s WYATT novels. Lawrence Block’s HITMAN novellas & short stories. The first couple of Walter Mosely’s EASY RAWLINS novels. Even my brother Tod’s LIVING DEAD GIRL. Those are great noir tales that have invigorated the genre…that are bold new takes on familiar themes. I wanted to feel the same way about Ken Bruen and THE GUARDS because so many people I admire liked the book…but I didn’t.

  10. Just goes to show you it’s all 100% subjective. There are a few books and quite a few movies out there I love, but people would look at me strangely for it. And there are some classics and highly regarded novels I can’t stand more than a paragraph of.
    How else do you explain Anne Rice’s popularity? (Aside from the fact that everything she sends her editor is perfect, needing only copyediting?)

  11. I agree with Lee. Bruen’s work doesn’t do much for me. I don’t dislike it, it just doesn’t ring my noir bell as it does for others. I did like the non-Taylor books more but it wasn’t an epiphany.
    The authors Lee lists as favorites: Gischler, certainly Vicki Hendricks (Miami Purity is one of the best books I’ve ever read), Scott Phillips, Walter Mosley, Tod Goldberg, Willeford and I’d add Newton Thornberg’s Cutter and Bone, Sean Doolittle,Simon Kernick’s work, Jim Thompson, Stewart O’Nan’s Speed Queen, Jason Starr – we can keep adding names.
    Not being moved by Bruen’s work doesn’t equal a sweeping dislike of noir, or Irish writers, or blue-eyed writers or even alcoholic investigators. It means simply that Bruen didn’t hit the spot. That’s it.

  12. I haven’t read Ken Bruen but in general I agree with Lee Goldberg’s comments on the police novel. With a handful of exceptions, I can’t read them anymore, either. And for all the reasons Lee mentions.
    The cop replaced the cowboy when adult westerns (mature, usually Freudian themes) burned out just before the spaghetti western appeared in 1967 or thereabouts. “Dirty Harry” brought the cop drama screaming back to the mass audience, even though Joseph Wambugh’s novels, which I feel are the best cop novels ever written, would have been a much more intelligent direction to take.
    While directors such as Anthony Mann and Don Seigel brought freshness and depth to the troubled cowboy from 1950 to 1960, 4,892 hack imitations later there was nothing to be done but kill off the entire sub-genre of so-called adult westerns. So cop heros (now just as troubled as Freudian cowboys) came back to the tube and the wide screen. (And Mann and Siegel went back to doing crime stories, which is where they’d started, though Mann sadly was soon to get lost in big-budget “spectacles”).
    “Dirty Harry” as The Outsider came directly of course from Sergio Leone, who saw to it that the adult western genre didn’t return to the nonense of the old B-western. Leone took the troubled cowboy to his logical end–into hard-core psychopathology and to left-wing commentary on the capitalist system and those who protected it in the name of law and order. Wambaugh edged up to this with The Choirboys but wasn’t quite willing to go all the way.
    To me, Abel Ferrara in his awkward but profound way leap-frogged over every police novelist with “The Bad Lieutenant.” Even Ellroy looks pretty tame by comparison, more out of books than real street experience. Ferrara gave psycopathogical truth to it as well. Even the film’s detractors have granted that they never encountered a character anywhere in literature or film like Ferrara’s Lieuteant. No matter where anybody else goes, even the so-called “angry” writers, I doubt they’ll ever match Ferrara’s imperfect but crushing vision or vocabulary.
    I certainly don’t hope Ferrara’s take produces many imitators. Whatever else you might say yea or nay about the film, it’s clearly deeply personal and deals with madness in a way that doesn’t lend itself to knock-offs.
    Ed Gorman

  13. [Copying my response from Sarah’s blog, ’cause I’m too lazy to think twice.]
    I’m one of the few remaining crime fiction afficionados, it seems, who haven’t read The Guards, although I do intend to…assuming I can find the time. (At the moment I’m in the middle of a painfully long scifi “masterpiece” that I may not see the finish of. Alas, I was assigned to review it.)
    The Guards appeared on 1/2 dozen or so of the “Favorite 5 of 2004” lists that I’m currently compiling, from some folks I respect and admire. So there’s gotta be something there. (Right??)
    I did try one of Bruen’s books, though…I’m pretty sure it was The Blitz. I’m almost a little ashamed to admit it, but I couldn’t stand it. If it hadn’t had Bruen’s name on the cover, I would have sworn it was the winner (loser?) of a “Write a Detective Pastiche Story” contest.

  14. Like I said earlier, if a book or an author is this polarizing and inspires such debate, it’s going to stick around in the collective consciousness. I’m sure everyone here has a similar feeling of confusion about the popularity of certain so-called sacred cows; Bryon with Crumley’s THE LAST GOOD KISS, David with Dennis Lehane, me with Elmore Leonard and to a lesser extent, Jim Thompson (I adored one chapter of THE KILLER INSIDE ME, but the rest seemed, well, not so all that.)
    Although if we’re going to introduce more “great noir authors” to the mix, one cannot leave out Dorothy B. Hughes. IN A LONELY PLACE, the movie was very good–but the book’s even better.

  15. I happen to like Ken Bruen’s work, too, though not to the extent others seem to, and not to the lesser extent my brother seems to, but I think Neil’s attempt to figure out Lee’s reluctance to fall in love with the work is tied to his tv writing is, well, silly. Plot is always about the characters — unless, you know, there is an asteroid hurtling toward earth and the only thing that can stop it is Bruce Willis on an oil rig in the south china sea, and even that, in the end, becomes about character — and when I saw Lee’s post I thought it rang true regarding the cliches. It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the work, it just made me think, oh, yeah, that is true.
    I just read Last Car to Elysian Field by James Lee Burke the other day and all the while I kept thinking, “Okay, when he is going to start craving the bottle? When is he going to lose control and beat the shit out of someone? When is something going to happen to him that threatens his manhood and he feels crappy about it?” And like clockwork, all those things happened, because they always happen in Robicheaux novels and you know what? It’s a cliche of his own making and I FUCKING LOVE IT. LOVE IT. But I see the craft issue and it bothers me. So whether or not Lee writes for TV or writes book about a tv show isn’t the point, the point is that either you buy the trifle and go on or you don’t.

  16. I take Lee’s point about THE GUARDS’s lack of narrative momentum. This was offset a bit by the short chapters, (see also Robert Parker), but the book did seem aimless at times.
    I haven’t read enough noir to know the stylistic conventions, but I soon realized the story was more about Jack Taylor figuring himself out than figuring the case.
    I also take Lee’s point about the alcoholic cop and other cliches. That’s where Bruen’s choice of narrative style comes in. The indented lists, quoted passages, etc. were to me a fresh way of getting into the protag’s head. If Bruen had told the story in omniscient third-person, let’s say, it might’ve been a forgettable book.
    THE GUARDS worked for in terms of execution, but that said, I hope Taylor doesn’t have to figure himself out in every book. That perpetual naivete annoys me (see also Dave Robicheaux, Pat Kenzie/Angie Gennaro).

  17. Sarah hits it right on the head. One of the things that makes reading such a singular joy is that each book strikes us all differently. Reading is the most individual of pleasures this side of onanism; what we bring to the book is just as important as what the book brings to us. Thus our reactions will always differ. It’s a good thing, too, as it provides us with countless hours of enjoyment discussing and arguing over them.

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