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The Guards    by Ken Bruen order for
by Ken Bruen
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* *   Reviewed by Shannon Bigham

Irish author Ken Bruen's The Guards is a crime novel of the hard-boiled variety, similar to Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, but without the whodunit element. The protagonist is Jack Taylor, a former member of the Irish police force known as 'The Guards'. Taylor is a washed-up alcoholic, approaching middle age. He is single, has no children, and half-heartedly pursues a career as a self-employed private investigator, after falling out of favor with the Guards due to excessive drinking.

Private investigators are rare in Ireland. Taylor is drinking in a pub when a woman approaches him in regard to the death of her daughter. It was ruled a suicide, although the woman believes it was murder. She hires Taylor and the novel develops from there. Taylor employs a young associate named Cathy B. to assist him in the investigation. An artist named Sutton - with a frightening violent streak - also gets involved, whether Taylor wants him to or not. Just when the investigation appears to be going nowhere, Taylor returns to his home to find two men waiting for him. After Taylor receives a beating that lands him in the hospital, it's clear that someone wants him to stop. Not surprisingly, Taylor presses on in a search for the truth.

In addition to the investigation, we are given a bird's eye view of Taylor's personal life, including a romantic relationship, his dealings with his mother and his past relationship with his father, along with encounters with a neighboring tenant, his previous employer, and a local barmen named Sean. While the mystery lacks the element of suspense, there are various interesting characters and the story is fast-paced. Bruen uses wry wit and humor, which provides a welcome and refreshing angle to a book that delves deep into the pain associated with alcoholism. As a result, there is a bit of levity sprinkled throughout that keeps The Guards from being a depressing read.

Despite Taylor's dismal drinking problem and errant behavior, I found myself rooting for him through the book and look forward to meeting him again in Bruen's subsequent novel, The Killing of the Tinkers.

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