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Onyx reviews: The Ghosts of Galway by Ken Bruen

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/18/2017

A heretical book has been stolen from the Vatican; its contents promise to upend Christianity. No, we haven't entered the pages of a Dan Brown novel (although that author is name-checked in The Ghosts of Galway). The Red Book, reputedly a ninth century refutation of The Book of Kells, is, for the most part, a MacGuffin, Jack Taylor has been hired to find it by a wealthy factory owner with ties to the Ukrainian mob for whom he works as a security guard.

Taylor, a former member of the Irish Gardaí (police force) and the protagonist of a dozen previous novels by Bruen, has fallen upon hard times. He has an attempted suicide in his recent past after a mistaken terminal illness diagnosis, and enough scars on his body to narrate his violent history. And yet Bruen manages, through his poetic style and lyrical presentation to elevate Taylor from simple ruffian to hero.

Violence follows Taylor everywhere he goes. He locates the priest who supposedly stole The Red Book, but the man ends up murdered shortly thereafter. Suddenly no one wants anything to do with Jack's quest, least of all the man who hired him. To top things off, the story takes place during a year when many of Taylor's favorite musicians are departing this mortal coil and radical nationalism is sending shivers through the Western world. Taylor is an avid consumer of popular culture, and Bruen's novels can be used as an introduction to any number of other crime writers whose books line Taylor's shelves or the box set crime series he's taken to bingeing.

People are always asking Jack, a champion of lost causes, to do virtually impossible things, but he's never had an assignment like the one he accepts from a young girl who wants him to find her brother. She scrimps together a paltry finder's fee but, from all indications, the "missing" boy has never existed.

What of the supposed ghosts referenced in the title? Just when it seems like things couldn't get any stranger, dead livestock are being left in Eyre Square, apparently an act of social protest by an ultra-right group with nefarious intent—one perhaps more sinister than it at first seems. A sexy goth named Emerald, a sociopath with more personalities than Taylor has drinks every day, with whom Taylor has a complicated history, enters the picture, which can only mean things will go from bad to very much worse.

Bruen's Galway, or at least the part of it that Jack Taylor inhabits, is a dire, brutally violent place. Taylor has a kind of Midas touch where seemingly everyone he comes into contact with dies. There is a mystery to be solved here, but not much actual detection in a private investigator sense. Taylor doesn't follow clues so much as he blunders about causing trouble for everyone and himself. That Bruen writes so directly and lyrically (and briefly—his books are quite short) only makes the violence that much more terrible.

This book may not be the best entrance point into Bruen's series, as it involves threads from a few recent novels, but it is another solid entry into one of the strangest and most wonderful crime series.

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