Book Review: “Galway Confidential” — Amidst the Castaways

By Lucas Spiro

At a time when it seems as if the world is spinning out of control, steeped in anonymous violence, a Jack Taylor novel provides a front and center opportunity to contemplate doing something about the issues in our own backyard.

Galway Confidential by Ken Bruen. Mysterious Press, 264 pages, $26.95.

Ken Bruen’s “bedraggled” detective Jack Taylor returns from the edge of darkness in Galway Confidential, the 17th installment in one of Irish crime fiction’s bleakest series by one of the genre’s most prolific writers. We last saw Jack suspended between the quick and the dead after a vicious knife attack, wondering how much more suffering Bruen might subject his protagonist to before Jack finally rebels against his maker. For Jack’s sake, readers might have even welcomed a final send-off. But the universe, and Bruen, has other plans for him.

“C is for chaos,” we learn, from one of Bruen’s signature floating lines of text, alienated and without any context. It is as if the sentiment dissolved through the page itself or was hurtled from a linguistic abyss. C is also for “coma,” as Jack has been in one since the end of A Galway Epiphany. He is just coming out of it; not quite resurrected, more undead and damned than revived. Understandably, the chaos of the world he returns to will take some getting used to and, since the Galway of Jack Taylor’s world exists more or less parallel to our own, the time period is one of general anarchy. There are competing global threats from the pandemic to war in Europe and reactionary figures rising from amid liberal capitalist states suffering from legitimacy crises.

Bruen might offered us an episode at the height of the pandemic, with Jack dodging lockdown restrictions, maybe stumbling (he’s still a drunk, after all) into some pharmaceutical scandal involving local government gombeens. The west of Ireland is home to a number of pharma and medical technology companies, and the area has a tradition of two-bit crooks masquerading as politicians (or vice versa). A plausible scenario for a covid caper was for the taking. I like Bruen’s choice of a coma as a metaphor for that first phase of the epidemic. Weren’t lockdowns a kind of mass, societal coma? “Or, as a Galway wit called it, ‘A comma.’ [A] Pause.” How many of us can relate to the feeling of having quite literally lost time?

Jack’s pause has consequences; adjustment have to be made. First, the guy needs to undergo some rehabilitation, physical and mental. His “physical recovery had been good, astounding, according to the doctor,” but, true to form, his “mental well-being was… fucked.” Even if he were the heroic type who could turn his detective skills — limited as they are — on his own demons: “The world was so utterly altered that [he] couldn’t get a grip.” There will be some readers who prefer not to relive the news cycles of 2020-2022, but Jack has to get his bearings. At one point, he notes sardonically that the “two-meter distance didn’t make a whole lot of difference as I had spent my life swerving away from folk.” Even better, he “had mostly avoided touching other’s hands.”

For the dedicated drinker like Jack, the economic hit to some of Galways less-famous but no less essential pubs is a difficult shot in the arm. That doesn’t stop him from keeping his BAC levels high enough to keep DTs away. There are plenty of pints and measures of Jameson left in Galway. Violent crime is also keeping pace with post-crisis gentrification and inflation. Someone has been attacking nuns, bludgeoning them to within an inch of their lives. But, perhaps even more cruelly, letting them live. And two youths, one rich and one with a learning disability, are graduating from cliché psychopath training wheels of harming defenseless animals to taking it upon themselves to rid Galway of its homeless population.

Jack is enlisted to investigate both crimes, and he is as reluctant as ever to get involved. In the case of the nuns, Jack’s employer believes he has “‘solved cases that no one else would even attempt.’” Jack sets her straight: “Cases got solved around me,” he tells her, “very rarely did I actually find the solution.” Shocking as the attacks are, the nuns aren’t generating as much sympathy from the public because of fallout from previous church scandals including the discovery of children’s remains in a septic tank in Tuam from a notorious so-called “mother-and-baby-home” (a true story). He takes more initiative when it comes to protecting the homeless, many of whom Jack is friendly with. He shares a certain outsider kinship with them.

But Jack takes as many missteps in this case as many of his others. Vigilante justice, doled out by the detective or a mysterious group operating in the city known as Edge, is still frowned upon by the authorities, especially when the son of the wealthy and well-connected is involved.

There isn’t much in the way of a mystery in Galway Confidential. Thematically, this works because Jack’s small west coast Irish city has become caught up in — or, maybe more accurately, has left behind — the global vortices of dramatic change and violence. The series is sinking further and further into provincialism as the urban landscape rapidly changes and Jack grows older, loses more steps, and dribbles away more time.

Still, Bruen’s reluctant detective is still buoyed by an at times contradictory sentimentality that serves as the source of his code. While Jack is by no means faultless or as close to capable as he once was, he still finds it in him to sympathize with the underdogs. After all, he is one. “We can somehow stomach the nasty shite they do to us,” a homeless friend says to Jack,” but the very worst is indifference, to be invisible.” At a time when it seems as if the world is spinning out of control, steeped in anonymous violence, a Jack Taylor novel provides a front and center opportunity to contemplate doing something about the issues in our own backyard, however trivial they seem in comparison to the larger context, or how ill-equipped we might feel to take action. “Who buries the lost?” Galway Confidential asks. Answer?The Marginalized, Homeless, The castaways.” The antidote to what is becoming a pervasive cynical defeatism is to reach across and recognize yourself in someone else, from one castaway to another.

Lucas Spiro is a writer living in Dublin.


  1. Thomas Spiro on March 20, 2024 at 9:20 am

    Preparing His disciples for what is yet to come, Jesus said: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40)

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