I had to take a few days off half way through reading The Dramatist. Jack Taylor, the central character, really got under my skin and kept me constantly sad, scared and on edge. He’s a power keg with the fuse unlit at the moment, but the next moment could change that. For all that, he’s an immensely sympathetic character. He wouldn’t care, though, whether I was on his side or not. He has, he says, quoting W.B. Yeats, “an unmoved heart…I’d known it all my troubled life.”
Jack was once a member of the Garda but now scratches out a living as a pretty shady private investigator with methods that are better not gone into. He’s an alcoholic and a cocaine user, though in this book he has been clean for six months. This case involves the apparently accidental deaths of two young students, the writing of J.M. Synge, a vigilante group known as The Pikemen, and the one woman he ever loved, now married to a thuggish policeman. The mechanics of the plot aren’t what’s interesting, though they move on at a fast and often entertaining clip. What held me was Jack, his voice and his mind, as he moves through the low life of Dublin.
What makes Jack different from the standard seedy PI is the combination of life-engrained cynicism and an unshakeable sense of justice. He’s like the kid who takes on a group of bullies much bigger than himself because he’s so outraged at them bullying a smaller kid. He hates the everyday corruption of the Garda and the Catholic Church in Ireland, the hypocrisy of the clergy and the sway they have, and the vigilantes on both sides still fighting for their own version of history. He’s one of those quite rare literary characters whose name summons up a whole country – its literary richness, its gift of the gab, its sentimental heart and its black humour.
Ken Bruen is a terrific writer who deserves recognition far beyond the prizes he’s won in the field of crime writing. The Dramatist has the combination of tone, pace and heart with economy of form that puts it very high up in my ranking of literary creations. The ending is breathtaking. The only thing is, I’m an emotional coward and I don’t think I can bear to read any more Jack Taylor books. If you’re tougher than me you can look forward to another 15 in the series.