Review: Priest by Ken Bruen

Priest opens with its anti-hero, Jack Taylor, having been virtually catatonic in an asylum for five months, following the event that occurred at the very end of The Dramatist. If you have read the earlier novel you will not think that unreasonable at all (and if you haven’t Jack does explain early on what led him to his current low point). But a chance encounter pulls him out of his fugue state in time to leave the institution and be called upon by his old nemesis, Father Malachy to investigate the beheading of a local priest.

That synopsis makes the book sound more like a traditional crime novel than it really is, when really the crimes are a device for Bruen to explore the changes he has observed in Irish society. The most significant of these is the impact of the exposure of widespread paedophilia by Catholic priests and the sustained cover-up by the Church. The impact on individuals, as Jack tracks down two men who were abused by the recently murdered priest, is beautifully depicted, though, of course, extremely sad. And through the first-person telling of the story by Jack we also see the impact on the wider society which was once, in various ways, held together by the Church and its representatives (the priests) and is now adrift somewhat without the familiar anchor. Having been raised Catholic (now lapsed) I have read and watched whatever I can get my hands on about this theme, both fiction and non-fiction, and I cannot recall having read anything which depicts the far-reaching impacts of this series of events as thoughtfully, intelligently and accurately as has been done here. Bruen has teased out what the media coverage, with its sensational headlines and moving on to the next story after 5 minutes, always misses: the lasting impact on victims, their families and all the connected people who’ve had their beliefs shattered.

Jack is more ‘together’ than he thinks he has a right to be here, though ‘together’ is a relative term. He acquires a home (several at one point), and a trainee and does his job with a little more dedication than in the previous novel though he is, at heart, one of life’s losers which is soon borne out. Though he is a loser with the soul of a poet and his ode to Ireland, and its people, which is partly what this book felt like to me, is quite haunting. As is his depiction of both alcoholism and depression and their effects upon the sufferer, which makes more sense and has more clarity than most of the non-fiction you’ll read on either subject.

The rest of the characters are somewhat minor players who surround Jack for the most part but even if their appearance is fleeting they’re all brilliantly drawn. One who stood out for me was a nun who looked after Father Joyce (prior to his beheading). I might have grown up half a world away from Ireland but I know nuns exactly like her: sharing both behaviour and fears. Bruen has captured perfectly the impact the Church’s hierarchy enforced social deprivations has on such a person.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Jack Taylor and his exploits make for melancholy reading but Bruen manages, through a combination of humour and wonderfully crisp writing that doesn’t enable the reader to wallow in despair, to make it an enjoyable experience. I’m being a bit harsh in not giving the book a full 5 stars but the ending was a smidgen less brilliant than the ending of its predecessor so I thought it only fair to knock off a half a star.

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Priest has been reviewed at Kittling Books,  Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog

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My rating 4.5/5
Author website
Publisher Corgi Books [2010]
ISBN 9781409085461
Length 183 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #5 in the Jack Taylor series
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in book review, Ireland, Ireland Reading Challenge 2011, Ken Bruen. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Review: Priest by Ken Bruen

  1. Maxine says:

    Great review, as usual Bernadette. I have only read the first of this series (The Guards) so thanks for the lack of spoliers. This is a harrowing topic and one that sometimes one feels is not treated with due seriousness as a crime fiction theme. Benjamin Black, in Christine Falls, examines a related institutional crime (won’t provide details in case of spoilers) in 1950s Ireland, but not very successfully I thought, owing to clunky plot, poor writing etc. I am still not sure whether to read any more of the Jack Taylor series, having just read the first there seem a daunting number to go, about someone who as you write is basically a mess (or at least he is in the first book) but still magically seems to have somewhere to live, friends everywhere to help him out, etc. Perhaps I’ll check out the library, to see if #2 is there.


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – You are quite right that this topic is often not given a good treatment. I’m so glad it is in this novel. It sounds as though this gets much more to the personal level of what’s happened than some other stories do, and that puts a very necessary human face on the problem. Excellent review, and I am going to try to find this one.


  3. @Maxine I know what you mean about a daunting number of books in the series…plus there are plenty of other books he’s written as standalones or in different series. I cheated a bit with the Jack Taylor books by starting at #4, which a friend told me would be an acceptable place to start and it seemed so. I realise there are little callbacks to earlier books in the later ones but I haven’t ever felt that I had missed something major (unlike with some other writers who make it almost impossible to pick up a series at any spot but the beginning). I wouldn’t want you to read on without warning though: Jack is still a mess and won’t ever be much else I think. And I do have to be in the mood for him.


  4. Keishon says:

    Oh, excellent review, Bernadette. After reading and enjoying them all my favorite is still The Dramatist. I also bought The White Trilogy (long time ago for much less money than they are asking for now) which is the introduction to his Brant series. All I can say is that it is a totally different style/tone of writing. More like an adrenaline rush. I haven’t read his standalones but I do have London Boulevard (and enjoyed the film version very much).


  5. Jose Ignacio says:

    Thanks for your interesting review, Bernadette. Haven’t read any, but I take due note of the author.


  6. Kathy D. says:

    Interesting. I wasn’t moved to try this series — alcoholic, dissolute Irish anti-hero, a bit of a stereotype. A friend whose relatives came from Ireland tells me she is dismayed by these depressed, drinking Irish protagonists, as if they were the sole residents of the old sod. There seem to be many in Irish crime fiction.
    However, this seems quite compelling and I’ll give it a try, but the mood has to be right for this book, or my mood.
    I’m so concerned about this topic, as so many people are, and the impact of the Church’s inaction, cover-up and protection of its own pedophiles, and how the most important people in this situation have fared, the survivors and their families. If Bruen has insights on this and can shed more light on the topic, although so maddening and sad, then I’d like to read about it.


  7. janebbooks says:

    Sorry, fellow bloggers, that I disagree with most of you about the Jack Taylor series by Ken Bruen. Only Kathy D.’s remark that Taylor is dissolute Irish anti-hero was palatable. Bruen has earned his living writing crime novels but have you read his disjointed and arrogant interviews lately? Bruen’s Hiburnian noir is a bit dark for me.

    Now John Banville/Benjamin Black is an author of another stripe. He depicts 1950’s
    Dublin with great sense of place and captures the all-prevailing power of the Catholic Church, especially in CHRISTINE FALLS. Banville/Black also is a fine lyrical writer and an outstanding storyteller. And Quirke is a fascinating protagonist. Of course, he isn’t the stereotypical Paddy of Irish fiction: he’s an adopted son of a judge with a college degree and is at the other end of the social spectrum. (It sometimes all boils down to which end you prefer, doesn’t it? Peasant or landlord.)
    So for the middle view of contemporary Irish crime, you have to read the Ed Loy P.I. series by Declan Hughes. Hughes suggests that Loy’s comments on social issues are beyond his control and that he just likes to rattle the skeletons in the closet, but the question of pedophilia is sensibly discussed in THE PRICE OF BLOOD (UK title THE DYING BREED) and needless IRA killings are faintly in the background of ALL THE DEAD VOICES.



  8. @Jane, I do understand that Jack Taylor isn’t for everyone but I found the observations in this book to be particularly credible and terribly familiar for me. The community I grew up in here in Australia may as well have been transplanted from the Ireland of Taylor’s youth. Irish priests abounded, all of our social activities as a family revolved around the Church, most of the couples who were my parents’ friends had at least one person who first or second generation Australian of Irish descent (my mum is second-generation herself), their traditions and attitude to the Church were all brought with them and re-created here and as tends to be the way with migrants they clung on for dear life to some of their traditions even when things in Ireland began to change which I saw for myself when I visited.

    I haven’t read any interviews with Bruen and won’t be. I actually go out of my way not to interact too much with the authors of the books I love as I can find myself being put off by some aspect of their personality or behaviour when I read or see interviews with them- to the point that with one author I’ve decided not to read anything else she writes even though I loved the books of hers that I’d already read. All I’m interested in is the books to be honest (I do have to make an exception for Australian crime fiction because I am trying to promote that on our Aussie crime fiction blog and other readers do seem to enjoy author interaction).

    I haven’t been compelled to read the Benjamin Black books, having not liked anything I’ve read of Irving’s non-crime fiction but I’ll have to have a look at the library and see if they’re available. Still I think there’s a vast difference between the Ireland of the 50’s and today so not sure how they can be compared to the Jack Taylor books. I do have one of Declan Hughes’ books on my TBR shelves and a couple more on my wishlist so will get to them one day,


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