Once Were Cops by Ken Bruen

All right, noir fans, the dark hearted master of the Emerald Isle has returned to regal us with the tale of Matthew Patrick O’Shea, and oh, my dear Wild Things, it was worth the wait . . .

O’Shea, whom everyone calls Shea, is a Galway Guard who skillfully blackmails his way into a coveted police exchange program between Ireland and the United States. Manipulative and psychotic, Shea wants to feel the edge of being out there, on the streets, a killing machine; and he does love the ladies, does our Shea, although he does tend to smother them in his ardor. Shea manipulates his way into the New York City Police Department and once there, he is partnered with Kurt “Kebar” Browski. Kebar, as he is known, has made a deal with the devil in the form of the mobster, Morronni, who supplies Kebar with money to keep his disabled sister in a quality institutional home in exchange for information.

Although as shamelessly violent as Shea, Kebar’s love for this sister humanizes him; his frustrations are real, his personal agony over becoming the very thing he loathes is wrenching. Morronni soon implicates Shea in Kebar’s corruption, and Shea moves with calculating, debilitating aggression to assure his rise as a hero cop is not disrupted. In spite of his own feeble protestations of yearning for normalcy, Shea knows and embraces the emptiness in his soul, gleefully exploiting those who stand in his way, confident as only a serial killer can be in his superior intelligence.

Bruen has written this novel in short, hanging paragraphs that burst with characterization; each sentence is a resounding sucker punch to the brain, unrelenting in intensity. There is also poetry here, lyrical in the rhythm in which Bruen carries us through the lives of Shea, Kebar, Morronni, and those unfortunate enough to be a part of their circle. Bruen captures the soullessness of the serial killer with startling reality, reminding us that the most frightening monsters are those that walk amongst us undetected. Yet he manages to skillfully weave a thread of hope into this dismal world he has created for us, proving that even in the deepest night of the most damaged soul, there is a light dimly shining.

Highly recommended is Once Were Cops and may you write on, sir . . .

My Rating:  

5 thoughts on “Once Were Cops by Ken Bruen

  1. Love noir, love hard-boiled mysteries. Recently I suffered through a bout of lung trouble and had to reside on the couch for four or five days. I pulled every James Crumley novel off my shelf and re-read them. I love Ray Chandler but NOBODY in the field of crime/mystery can touch Crumley (who, sadly, passed away last month). And I was astonished by how much of Crumley had infected the tone and atmosphere of my two supernatural mysteries, SO DARK THE NIGHT and OF THE NIGHT. Both read like an homage to Crumley’s oeuvre…which makes losing him all the more sad…

    Thanks for this.

  2. Hello, Cliff, thanks for posting.

    I’ve never taken the opportunity to read Crumley; and I’m more familiar with Chandler through his movies than his novels. To be honest, I’ve never been much a mystery fan until I read Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River a few years ago, thoroughly enjoying his masterful of twisting of the tale.

    I love Bruen’s writing, because he so closely examines that which makes us bleed with such raw intensity. It’s not the “who dunnit” that appeals to me so much as the wide open in your face character study of the human condition. There is a poetic quality about his work and you know he has lived amongst the walking wounded, struggling against his own demons to earn his place in the world.

    Too many writers today tend to eschew emotion for technique; happily for us, Ken Bruen is not one of them.

    Good luck with your own writing, Cliff; I wish you much success!

  3. Give Crumley a shot: THE LAST GOOD KISS or THE WRONG CASE are excellent starting points. But I warn you, he’s addictive and after reading him, other mystery scribblers pale by comparison…

  4. So like any addict that perks up when someone says, “here, try this, you’ll like it . . .” the Dragon will bite on Crumley (hehe). I’ve got The Wrong Case coming to me, and we shall see if James Crumley will move me into an unforeseen direction . . .

    Thanks, Cliff!

  5. Okay, Cliff, I tried Crumley’s The Wrong Case, and I’m afraid I wasn’t moved. This wasn’t so much noir to me as it was just depressing; Milodragovitch (Milo) spends a lot of time drinking, swearing, drinking, beating people up, drinking some more . . . well you get the picture. Milo isn’t so much a dark character as he is pathetic.

    That’s not to say there wasn’t some really good writing here. My favorite scene was Milo telling of how his mother reacted after his father’s alcoholic death. He describes her anger at his father and how she gave away all his father’s clothes to second hand stores. Soon he started to see his father’s clothes being paraded around town by the skid row drunks, who had purchased them from the second hand stores. A young Milo then saved this allowance and went from store to store to buy back his father’s clothes.

    Unfortunately, there are also some highly ludicrous scenes, too, and Helen Duffy was the most unbelievable female character I’ve encountered in a long time. She is presented in a very schizoid manner: speaking in a cultured manner in one sentence and street vulgar in the next, laughing, crying, screaming all within the same scene, and to top it all off, Milo falls madly in love with her when her behavior would send any reasonable person running for the woods. I don’t see how anyone could like, much less, empathize with her. The scene where Milo and his friend Dick are watching over the grieving Helen as she sleeps almost had me in tears, and not of grief. After a long night of drinking coffee and watching as she mutters in her sleep, we’re treated to these sentences: “Once she sat up, her wild eyes staring through us, then she laughed in short, hard barks. Before either of us could rise, she fell back on the bed, tumbled back into her dreams.” I half expected for her head to spin around and the furniture to start to move. The woman didn’t need a private investigator, she needed an exorcist; I had to read ahead to see if Father Damien was going to put in an appearance.

    Crumley gives us a very dirty world full of good people who are on the bottom side of life with the emphasis on environment and shady people, which for me is a very superficial brand of noir. Bruen stands out because he delves deep into the evil we do, the greed, the envy, the passions that drive his characters into the abyss is the type of noir that I find very appealing. One can avoid the external wickedness of shady people and bad places if we desire, but we can not hide from the darkness within ourselves, and that’s where Bruen hits us between the eyes and deep within our souls.

    Thanks again for the recommendation, Cliff, but I think I’ll stick with Bruen for now.

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