The Magdalen Martyrs  - Ken Bruen

This is book #3 of the Jack Taylor series. If you read the reviews, you'll see they are polarizing novels. Some see them as a celtic noir take on pulp fiction, others find them unrelentingly grim & derivative. 

Jack's past is well established & informs his situation & choices. Hopelessly addicted to booze & anything else that blurs his reality, this is a man desperate to forget the past while trying to decide if he wants a future. The books are narrated in the first person, full of Jack's personal allusions to literary snippets that speak to him & brutal self awareness.

This instalment follows the author's typical format of weaving together two stories: a new missing persons investigation & Jack's current position on his downward spiral. After being hospitalized for seizures, Jack is back on the wagon. He's contacted by Bill Cassell, a hard man who calls in a favour. Bill is dying & wants Jack to find Rita Monroe, a woman who helped his mother when she was an inmate at the infamous Magdalen laundries. 

Jack is anxious to clear his debt & takes the job. In fleeting moments of sobriety, he excels as a finder & soon has a second case. Terry Boyle, a smug young businessman, wants Jack to prove his step mother killed his father. Officially it was labelled a heart attack but Terry believes his dad got a little help from Kirsten the trophy wife.

Jack enlists the help of Brendan Flood, another ex-guard who found religion. He investigates the Magdalen while Jack tracks down Rita. Meanwhile, two young men who are college students are assassinated in seemingly random attacks. 

Both of his cases lead Jack to women who will play pivotal roles. One is Kirsten, a manipulative pleasure seeking widow with friends in high places. The other is Rita. She used to work as a matron at the Magdalen in the 1950's & is not exactly what Jack is expecting.

Interspersed with the current events are short vignettes of daily life at the laundry. It was a home for "troubled" girls, unwed mothers, petty thieves & those whose parents couldn't afford to keep them. This was an actual facility run by the church & when the truth about the living conditions/treatment of the girls was later revealed, the resulting scandal shook all of Ireland.

How you rate this book is not really a question of whether or not it's well written. It's a matter of taste. The reader spends a lot of time in Jack's head, an interesting if bleak place. He's a compelling guy. He changes his vices like his socks & when he temporarily stops drinking it's a small victory as he shifts to a diet of pharmaceuticals.

The one constant in his life are his beloved books & he has a quote for every occasion. The author leaves the flowery prose to these writers, telling his story in lean, spare sentences that run the gamut from starkly poetic to the blackest humour from a character who is brutally honest with himself.

The rest of the cast are not exactly little rays of sunshine either. With 2 possible exceptions, these are not nice people. They are unburdened by morals, users with hidden agendas & we gradually learn Jack is being set up. In spite of his commitment to self destruction, he shows a surprising talent for survival. And some of the characters who underestimated his resilience will pay.

This is not a beach book. It's dark, violent, sad & meditative. But there also moments when you catch a glimpse of something bearing a passing resemblance to hope. The story of the Magdalen is heartbreaking because it's true. But the investigation aspect of the plot takes a back seat to the character study of our "hero".

It all boils down to Jack. It can be like watching an impending train wreck & if you find him compelling, you'll enjoy this. If not, you probably won't give the series a second chance.