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Onyx reviews: Cross by Ken Bruen

Jack Taylor is to Galway, Ireland what Inspector Rebus is to Edinburgh, Scotland. Bleak, hard drinking, with an eye for the ladies but little success, and a reputation for delivering rough justice. Unlike Rebus, though, Taylor was forced to hang up his badge. He held on to (i.e stole) his Garda leather jacket (An Garda Síochána is Irish for "guardians of the peace"), but little else from his old job. He's become something of a private detective, though he has no shingle to hang out, no license, and he doesn't advertise his services.

He's flagellating himself over the fates of two young children—a girl who died, and a boy who was almost his son who lies in a hospital bed, in a coma and fighting for his life after taking a bullet likely meant for Taylor. He knows who the shooter was, but he doesn't care to settle accounts…for now. There will be plenty of time for that later. There are crosses to bear throughout this novel, in all shapes and forms.

Taylor knows Galway inside and out, but he's nostalgic for the old days and unimpressed with modernization and the changing face of his city. He's ready to ditch his homeland and move to New York or Florida after he finds out how much money his place is worth in the current marketplace.

However, before he goes, he gets tangled up in two more cases. One of them seems more of a joke than anyone else, and he hands it off as quickly as possible. A university professor reports a rash of missing dogs in his upscale neighborhood. When a former police officer, an alcoholic at the bottom of the barrel who was fired for taking a bribe, shows up at Taylor's door looking for a job, Taylor sends him on the wild dog chase, with unexpected consequences.

The primary case is far more serious. A boy is crucified and his sister is burned alive shortly thereafter. There can be little doubt the killings are connected, and the obvious suspects are the family of a woman killed in a hit-and-run accident. Taylor's old friend Ban Garda (female officer) Ridge asks him to help her catch the culprits. She also has need of his moral support after she finds a lump in her breast. Ridge is the closest thing he has to a friend, though it's hard to tell where their kinship comes from, given how hard they are on each other. He once saved her from a stalker but she is hostile rather than grateful.

Taylor is something of a holistic detective, wandering from bar to bar in hopes of avoiding clues but finding them all the same. He isn't much support for himself let alone anyone else. In the wake of Cody's shooting, he gave up alcohol, but he still haunts the same sacred ginmills and orders his regular drinks, as if challenging himself to fall off the wagon. No one comments on this idiosyncratic behavior—Taylor is known for his ill temper and willingness to use his fists.

Many authors attempt to write in dialect. Few succeed. However, Ken Bruen captures the Irish idiom effortlessly. Within a few pages, readers will be hearing dialog and narrative in brogue. Even without the accent, Bruen has a distinctive style of short, choppy sentences and one-line paragraphs that give the book a raw edge. He makes frequent observations about the nature of the Irish, their strengths and shortcomings. He has a keen eye for detail, but one wonders if an entire nation's people can be so easily summed up.

However, when it comes to summing up what's come before, Bruen doesn't seem terribly interested in bringing people who've missed any of the five previous Taylor novels up to speed. Events from his past are mentioned without explanation, which may leave some readers disoriented. It's not like he's pressed for space—Cross is a slight book, padded out with unnecessary blank pages between chapters.

Taylor isn't concerned about bringing the culprits to justice, in the classical sense. He has his own idea of how things should be handled. Very few detectives in literature would be comfortable with the punishment he chooses for the warped individuals behind the heinous murders Ridge is investigating. Though he is introduced to Zen philosophy through one of his old adversaries, the concepts of peace and serene acceptance don't stand a chance in hell of sticking to him.

Ken Bruen describes his novels this way: "Imagine terrible circumstances that will make you laugh out loud and then want to hang yourself." There's precious little to laugh at in Cross, but it's a small book with big fists. Readers won't soon forget it after the last page has been turned.

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