Monday, January 30, 2012

The Guards

The Guards is the Shamus award-winning novel which introduced private-eye Jack Taylor to the literary world. Taylor, probably author Ken Bruen’s most famous creation, is a washed-up alcoholic disgraced former policeman, who makes a living of sorts by sleuthing in his native Galway.

The story begins with Jack Taylor busy at his regular daytime pursuit - sitting at a bar drinking coffee laced with brandy - when, naturellement, in walks an attractive damsel in distress. Her teenage daughter was discovered dead from drowning; the police are calling it a suicide, but the bereaved mother can’t bring herself to believe that her daughter would take her own life. She asks Taylor to investigate; Talyor agrees, reluctantly, and soon discovers a pattern of teenage girls whose drowning deaths were classified as suicides.

The reader’s enjoyment of The Guards is dependent on whether or not they like Jack Taylor, the book’s narrator and principal character, and El Tarangu was not terribly impressed with Taylor from the outset. Jack Taylor just cannot seem to convincingly fulfil the private detective tropes, no matter how excruciatingly hard he tries. Take his dismissal from the police force (or “the guards” of the title, for our non-Irish readers); for reasons never adequately explained, Taylor decided to punch a parliamentarian. And the anguish that serves as one of the root causes of Taylor’s alcoholism – his Dad died. Losing a parent is sad and all, but Taylor’s father died a good age, and Taylor is a man in his forties – pull yourself together, man.

Jack Taylor is just one of a several two-dimensional characters that populate the pages of Bruen’s novel. There’s Cathy B., Talyor’s rock-chick assistant, and Padraig, the wise old derelict, neither of whom are fleshed-out enough to make them in any way convincing.

That being said, The Guards is not without its moments. The dialogue is sharp, and there are frequent flashes of black humour, particularly in the back-and-forths between Taylor and his curmudgeon barman, Sean.

All things taken into account, however, the book left El T feeling quite disappointed. Although presented as such, The Guards isn’t really a mystery novel at all. The mystery is solved about 60 or 70 pages in, with the rest of the novel’s 250 pages documenting Taylor’s wreck of a personal life: he goes on a bender, goes to rehab, falls off the wagon and goes on another bender, during which time the reader gets very little in the way of progression of the plot.

The author uses a number of devices that we found grating. Every chapter is prefaced with a quote, either of Bruen’s creation, or from one of a variety of esoteric sources. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a quote or two, but The Guards has about 50 chapters, and having 50 or so quotes in your book kind of smacks of pretension. Bruen also employs the device of sometimes writing
in the above manner. The intention was probably to give the novel a pared-back, hard-boiled feel, but the effect is often rendered redundant by Bruen using the device to list details extraneous to the story. Throughout the novel, there are frequent references to books that Taylor has read, details that El T would ususally enjoy, but in the case of The Guards serve to underline the lack of narrative thread.

The book was a particular let-down given Ken Bruen is often listed among the leading lights of Irish crime fiction; rather than an actual mystery novel, The Guards is a 300-page rumination on a not-that-likeable main character, with added noir stylings.

Not one to recommend, unfortunately. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Stop Ireland's SOPA

The Irish government is thinking of introducing a SOPA of its own, and it is as vague, ill-conceived, and rushed as its U.S. counterpart.

If you would like learn more about the new law, and why we think it’s a bad idea, read The’s overview of the proposed legislation.

Feel free to sign the petition against the law, or contact the man responsible for its drafting.

El Tarangu supports sane online regulation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Over My Dead Body: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

This is not the version that El T read, but the cover of this one is much nicer

The novel opens with a beautiful Balkan émigré entering Nero Wolfe’s office on West 35th Street, pleading for assistance on behalf of her friend. The friend, she claims, has been falsely accused of stealing some diamonds. When Wolfe expresses reluctance to accept the case, this mysterious femme drops the bombshell: the girl accused is no other than Wolfe’s long-lost adopted daughter!

From such hokey beginnings, the storyline unfolds: Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s ever-faithful assistant, is despatched to the fencing school, where the petitioner and Wolfe’s allegeded daugther work as instructors. Once there, Archie stumbles across a murder – not to mention agents of foreign governments, heirs to rich industrialists, shady dealings with European royalty, blackmail...

Over My Dead Body was El Tarangu’s first introduction to Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s corpulent detective. Over My Dead Body, like the rest of the Nero Wolfe stories, is recounted in the first person by Archie, just as the Sherlock Holmes stories are relayed to the reader via Watson. In fact, there are a number of similarities in the dynamic that exists between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and that of Holmes and Dr. Watson (while reading Over My Dead Body, El T was also reading the second Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of the Four). The hobbies of both Holmes and Wolfe are referenced in their respective stories: Holmes enjoys playing the violin and intravenous cocaine usage, while Wolfe prefers tending to his orchids and getting sozzled on beer at eleven in the morning. And the undercurrent of sexual tension between Wolfe and Goodwin runs even stronger than it does between Holmes and Watson. Sure, Wolfe and Goodwin both display a mutual antagonism towards one another, but that’s just the manner in which their repressed mutual desire manifests itself. And Goodwin once or twice passes remark about the desirability of certain female characters, but you can tell that he’s just doing it to make Wolfe jealous. To complete the closeted ménage, it is stated that Fritz, Wolfe’s chef-cum-manservant, is afraid of women, and hides whenever one comes to visit Wolfe’s brownstone.

Such latent longings aside, Over My Dead Body is a fun, well-structured, all-round enjoyable detective novel. The appeal of the Nero Wolfe mysteries lies not in the plot, but in the characters. The grouchy Wolfe frequently displays his dry, sardonic wit, while Goodwin regularly interjects with smart-alecky asides. Goodwin also occasionally comes out with pearls of ‘40s slang such as: “She sounded darn unconcerned for a girl who has just escaped being thrown in the hoosegow as a sneak thief”.

Nero Wolfe doesn’t like to leave the comfort of his brownstone, and co-ordinates all of his investigations from behind the desk in his office. This inevitably results in Goodwin performing most of the legwork, aided sometimes by Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. Wolfe’s reluctance to leaving his office also means that any set piece perpetrator-unmasking dénouement is reliant on Wolfe getting the culprit to agree to come to his office. As Over My Dead Body is only about the seventh of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, this device worked fine, but I imagine that by book twenty or so, Rex Stout was beginning to run out of credible foils to have the murderer/criminal trot along meekly to Wolfe’s office to be caught.

Good novel with well-crafted, very engaging characters; El Tarangu would definitely recommend.

Hat tip: Thanks to Kinky Friedman for introducing El T to the Nero Wolfe mysteries in When the Cat’s Away.

Cover image from the Wonder Publishing Group blog, which El T also recommends.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Under the Eagle

Under the Eagle is the first instalment in Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series of historical novels, which are set around the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE. The novel begins on the Upper Rhine in Germany (which is referred to as “Germany”; throughout the novel, Germany is “Germany” and Britain is “Britain”, but France is “Gaul”, Avenches is “Aventicum”, and Boulonge-sur-Mer is “Gesoriacum” - only mildly disconcerting). Quintus Licinius Cato is a raw recruit in the Second Legion. Cato does not match the typical profile of a prospective legionnaire; he is a skinny, awkward, former palace flunky, a slave who has enlisted in the legion in order to secure his freedom. Whatever is Macro, the battle-hardened veteran who has fought his way up from the ranks to become a centurion, to do with his new charge?

Inevitably, Cato proves his mettle in the heat of battle, and he and Macro strike up a hearty friendship in the time-honoured tradition of odd couples everywhere. Then, on the eve of the invasion of Britain, Macro is assigned a secret mission that could alter the fate of the empire itself…

The flyleaf of Under the Eagle informs the reader that the book’s author, Simon Scarrow, is a history teacher (El Tarangu’s edition is quite old; it is likely that Scarrow has given up the day job by now). This detail resulted in El T feeling a little disappointed upon finishing the book; for a military history novel written by a history teacher, Under the Eagle didn’t contain a huge amount of historical detail. Aside from learning that all Roman fortresses were laid out to the same specifications, and that new legionnaires trained with wooden swords for the first few weeks, the reader does not learn much about day-to-day existence in a Roman legion. El Tarangu wasn’t expecting the level of scholarly minutiae that Robert Graves provides the reader, but a little more historical detail, without it unduly interfering with the plot, would have been nice – Robert Harris struck a nice balance with Pompeii, for example. Inevitably, there are a number of anachronisms. Macro does at one point ask Cato if he has “scored” – this in relation to an attractive slave-girl that Cato is enamoured with – and legionnaires are referred to as “squaddies” by one character (late 20th century British Army slang, for those of you not familiar with the term), but the historical inaccuracies are seldom, and are usually not too distracting.

The author does conjure up one intriguing scenario in having Vitellius and Vespasian enter a sort of Machiavellian pact with regard to taking over the empire. The impact of this was almost lost on this reader, however; even though both characters feature frequently from the book’s very beginning, El Tarangu had forgotten that both Vitellius and Vespasian later went on to become emperor until the two enter into their uneasy alliance towards the end of the book. And while El T has previously read Suetonius and probably should have realised the historical significance of the two characters earlier, this reference was probably lost on some readers, particularly younger ones. And, while on the subject of historical personages, El Tarangu spent the first hundred-or-so pages wondering if the Macro in the novel, a grizzled, somewhat coarse soldier of humble origins, was the same person as the historical Macro, who was also a soldier of the legion from a similar background. They weren’t the same person, by the way - wrong reign; we really must dust off our copy of Suetonius and give it another read.

Plot-wise, the book is a page-turner. There are two good battle scenes, some political intrigue, a brief love interlude – Under the Eagle reads very well in a rollicking sort of way. A little lightweight, but never less than enjoyably diverting, Under the Eagle would be good for a holiday read.

Buy Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars from Amazon (the Robert Graves translation, naturally).

Image from