Ken Bruen has been perfecting his hard-boiled prose for a little over 10 years now. His finely crafted noir novels seem to get sparser, tougher and grimmer with each new one published. And there have been two dozen of these gems in that prolific decade. His latest, Once Were Cops, takes another step along his unique path to tell a crime story in the fewest words possible.
Michael O’Shea is an Irish cop, one of the Gardaí, on loan to the New York City Police Department. However, this is no Irish-bumpkin-let-loose-in-the-Big-City kind of story. Shea, as he styles himself, is a psychopathic killer who leaves a string of bodies in his wake. A few have suspected the killer that lurks inside him, but Shea’s own cleverness, coupled with his fearsome demeanor, has always kept him one step ahead of the authorities.
Noir master Jim Thompson worked this scenario in a couple of his greatest novels, The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, in which small-town sheriffs use their guile to mask dark, murderous hearts. Bruen plows the same terrain, but Thompson’s sherriffs are mere farm boys compared to Shea. His killing fury is buried so deep inside him that, when unleashed, it erupts like a cold storm and he loses consciousness of his actions:
Then there’s the zoning, from the time I was a child, I’d go someplace in my mind, a cold place and it’s like seeing the world through fog or very heavy glass and what I most want is to do damage, biblical damage, it’s beyond rage, more like a controlled fury that oh so carefully watches, then strikes ...
My Mother used to say,
“Shea lives in another room.”
A room covered in ice and fierceness.
There are two overlapping narratives in Once Were Cops: Shea’s first-person voice alternating with a third-person point of view of his NYC Police partner, Kurt Browski. Later in the novel, the POV shifts to a former cop-turned-investigative reporter, Joe Mulloy, on the trail of a brutal serial killer who is preying upon young women in New York. Browski is nicknamed Kebar because of his weapon of choice, the short, lethal K-bar pipe he uses to tame his suspects. In any other book, Kebar would be the bad cop.
Bruen, in all his novels, likes to take the conventions of noir and crime one step further. The reader expects the punch. But Bruen whacks the reader senseless with a pipe, or more usually an Irish hurley stick, to the temple. Blood flows. What just hit me? Did he really just do that to a character?
More than once, while reading a Bruen novel, I’ve wondered what dark dreams must haunt him, his characters wracked with a Dantean pain. Then I realize it’s his masterful prose, the lyrical Celtic expression wrapped around the iron bar of hardboiled American idiom. Beating a guy with a hurley stick, Shea thinks that, “to hear that whoosh of the bat, it was like the darkest music.” Or when he runs into Jack Taylor, the Irish PI from another of Bruen’s series, drinking in a bar, Shea comments:
I saw a photo of Beckett in a mag once and fuck, more lines on his face than the ordnance map of the country.
Taylor’s face would have given him a close run.
The lines were imbedded, like with a very sharp knife.
And the ones around his eyes, you just knew laughter certainly hadn’t been responsible.
Bruen’s no-nonsense prose style is a good fit for Shea. Once Were Cops seems to operate on a whole new stylistic level for contemporary crime thrillers. Looking at the pages of the novel, I almost felt it was a novel in verse, with only 20-25 lines per page, spaced out so that there’s more white space than text. This isn’t prose. The novel is an exercise in the poetics of noir, each line aphoristically phrased to pack the sharpest, most damaging, biblically damaging, punch. Bruen is like the King James of noir, and an Irish one at that, weaving his spell of dark music, his pale rider coming out of the whirlwind to bring down the hammer of kingdom come.