“If I had to pinpoint one second when I made the worst judgment of my life, I’d say it began then.” The Killing of the Tinkers, the second of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novel, was originally published in 2002. When we last saw Taylor at the end of The Guards, he was contemplating going to London, sobering up, and getting his life back together. As The Killing of the Tinkers begins, it is a year later, and he’s heading home to Galway. He’s drinking heavier than before, picked up a nasty cocaine habit, and brought back a few secrets with him, too. He’s in town only a day before he’s back on the job as a private investigator. Someone is brutally killing young “tinkers”—a nomadic Irish group on the outskirts of society—and the Guards aren’t doing anything about it. Offered a place to live and a nice salary, Jack Taylor signs on to do his best.
Taylor’s best, however, isn’t always good enough. His addictions continue to spiral out of control, his romantic relationships and friendships are pushed to the test, and the killings still continue. Things couldn’t get any lower for Taylor…until he’s asked to catch a crazed swan murderer who is terrorizing local lakes. When even that proves too much for him, Taylor once more has to confront the darkest parts of his soul to try and put himself back together again.
As much as I loved The Guards, I’d have to say The Killing of the Tinkers is even better. Stylistically, Ken Bruen is in a class of his own. Right from the first page, Bruen hits a pitch-perfect perfect noir groove and doesn’t let go until the very last page. Jack Taylor starts off in a bad way and only proceeds to get worse. “Did I feel good? Did I fuck. A sense of desolation engulfed me. Cloud of unknowing? …Not quite. I knew and was not consoled. Emptiness lit my guts like a palpable sense of dread.” It takes a special author to be able to find something beautiful and honest in such unrelenting despair, and Bruen is the guy to do it. While The Killing of the Tinkers does have its moments of humor (especially when mocking Sting and Dire Straits), when it goes for the punches, you feel it in your gut. In the words of Jack Taylor, “Lord knows, feeling bad is the skin I’ve worn almost all my life.”
Within the private eye genre, each detective has his own process for detection that defines his character. Jack Taylor’s process is that he’s often too much of a wreck to do anything. While there’s something darkly humorous about that, it’s also an important part of Bruen’s worldview. The Killing of the Tinkers isn’t overly concerned with detailing the detection process, and the mysteries are actually easily solved, but this only goes to show how prevalent crimes of all sorts—human, swan, or otherwise—are in our daily lives. Scratch the surface, there they are; dig deeper, and you’ve find a treasure trove of despair; or just use your eyes to survey the people around you, and you’ll find gut-wrenching stories just waiting to be told. Noir is all around, that is what Bruen reveals to us. And maybe that’s why Jack Taylor drinks so much—to stop himself from seeing, not only the worst parts of the world around him, but also himself.
Taylor’s increasing self-awareness from The Guards to The Killing of the Tinkers is one of the most fascinating progressions in the series, as well as the most haunting. Even though he knows himself better than in the first book, he seems even more incapable of getting his life back together. Bruen stands alongside Lawrence Block when it comes to writing palpably about the actual pains, and damages, of addiction. There’s nothing romantic about Jack Taylor’s vomiting, his blackouts, and the relationships he’s thrown down the drain. As Taylor tells one of his drinking companions, “I fucked up, Keegan.” Keegan says, “So…put it right.” Taylor’s humble, but heartfelt, reply: “I’ll try.” And that’s one of the differences between The Guards and The Killing of the Tinkers. I’m not sure if Taylor was trying in the first book. He was on the case more often, but it was though he were acting automatically. Even though now he’s struggling to retain control of himself more than ever, he also seems to understand more what the stakes are, and he has more of an investment in setting things straight.
The Killing of the Tinkers is a lonely book. Even though Jack Taylor is surrounded by more friends, and has more female companionship, than in The Guards, his addiction has cut him off from the rest of the world. Everyone recognizes his coked-out eyes, and they call him out on it, but it doesn’t change his ways. Taylor’s own growing sense of futility and failure only add to his alienation. What carries us through all the darkness, however, is Taylor’s sense of drive. He doesn’t know where he’s going, or who is in control, but he’s not standing still. There’s the sense that he wants to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that he’s going to get there one of these days, but he’s just not there yet. At first he tells himself that he doesn’t feel any real love for either of the women in the story—Kiki and Laura—but eventually he comes to realize that he’s just lying to himself. Whether it is too late to turn either relationship around is another question, and I won’t spoil anything for you, if you haven’t already read the book. But regardless of whether it works out or not, there is still that potential for hope that remains in Jack Taylor. Sure, he’s a likable drunk with an endearing hardboiled exterior and sensitive poetic interior, but what makes me so drawn to Jack Taylor is the way he reaches out to hold onto his own life. He swats and stumbles more than he connects, but I’m rooting for him all the way, and will continue to root as I dig into the third novel in the series, The Magdalen Martyrs.