Reading Ken Bruen, as anyone who ever has will tell you, is like playing with fire; you know that your feelings, your emotions and your sensibilities are apt to get burned, but you just can't resist the almost primal allure of the heat and flame. Well, reading THE DRAMATIST, the author's fourth novel featuring alcoholic ex-Guard Jack Taylor, will make cauterizing a raw nerve with a blow torch seem like a pleasant diversion. With Bruen's trademark terse prose, dialogue as hard as Connemara marble and as sharp as an icy wind off the Irish Sea, this one will - to borrow a line from James Ellroy - leave you "reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned." And that's all before you get to the absolutely horrific and unspeakable denouement on the novel's penultimate page. All that yawns ahead of Jack Taylor at the end of this incandescent work is utter darkness and it seems impossible to conceive of a way whereby even he - the ultimate "survivor" - might find his way back into the light.
The three previous Jack Taylor novels suffered from the fact that, in them, the author devoted so much time and energy to introducing and exploring the tortured psyche of his main character that some elements of good plot development were neglected. Not so this time around. In The Dramatist Bruen manages to weave together an intriguing and wholly coherent story line with the kind of in-depth character study that is so much a part of what makes this series so blasted good. This novel is still largely character-driven, to be sure, but in it Bruen uses plot in service of character and not merely as a necessary but regrettable evil. All the pieces fit together here and all of Jack's chickens come home to roost. It's in this novel, in other words, that all of the fragmented, jagged and jarring aspects of Jack Taylor's life and personality - so painstakingly depicted in those three earlier books - coalesce and redound to Jack like some kind of high-voltage karmic thunderbolt. This is crime fiction written on the scale of Sophoclean tragedy.
If you are unfamiliar with Ken Bruen's work in general and with the Jack Taylor novels in particular, THE DRAMATIST is a great place to make the acquaintance of both. It represents the author firing on all cylinders. Fans of Bruen's work, and those already acquainted with Jack Taylor, be forewarned: nothing in those earlier novels will prepare you for what transpires at the end of this one. But, in retrospect, everything there should have done so.
Read the full text of this review first published in MYSTERY NEWS (August/September 2004)