A Monster Behind the Badge
Monday, November 10, 2008
ONCE WERE COPS
By Ken Bruen
St. Martin's Minotaur. 294 pp. $22.95
The prolific Irish novelist Ken Bruen's books are violent, vulgar, over the top, booze-soaked, dungeon-dark and -- if you're not put off by all that -- often hilarious. The first of his novels I read, "The Guards," featured a Galway private detective who did far more drinking than detecting. The next, "Calibre," starred a serial killer who targeted obnoxious people and soon had us cheering him on. Bruen's new "Once Were Cops" is his most outrageous yet. Its narrator and antihero is an Irish psychopath who becomes a New York cop and moonlights as a serial killer.
Michael Patrick O'Shea, known as Shea, grew up as a cop's son in Galway. His problems started when he would "zone out" as a child: "I'd go someplace in my mind, a cold place and it's like seeing the world through a fog or very heavy glass and what I most want is to do damage, biblical damage, it's beyond rage, more like a controlled fury that oh so careful watches, then strikes." Bruen gives us a semi-comic portrait of the killer as a young man: "Hurling is our national sport, a cross between hockey and murder. I'd zone in games and some poor bastard would end up with forty stitches in his head." When young Shea tells his priest about his "zoning," the man warns, "Don't ever tell another soul about this, they'd lock you up."
No such luck. Shea becomes a Galway policeman and, thanks to an exchange program, crosses the pond to join New York's finest. There he's partnered with rogue cop Kurt Browski, whose troubled past ("His father beat his mother and they both beat Kurt") left him as violent and crazy as Shea but not as cunning. Kurt is on the mob's payroll, and this leads to several lethal confrontations. Shea, meanwhile, is increasingly attracted to women whose white, swanlike necks bring out the worst in him. He yearns to meet a girl "who would so consume me that I wouldn't need the long slender necks of others." Those irresistible white necks too often end up strangled by Shea's weapon of choice, a string of rosary beads. (As a non-Catholic, I'm not going near that one.)
Bruen faced a tricky question in writing this tale. How could he maintain even an iota of the reader's sympathy for a psycho who is leaving dead women all over New York? It helps that Shea is a charmer and an engaging narrator. He even manages, for a time, to carry on a romance with a perfectly nice young woman. And for much of the novel Bruen fuzzes up Shea's crime spree. The killings occur offstage, and Shea assures us he can't remember if he was the guilty party.
Still, it becomes clear to any reader who is not himself a psychopath that our narrator is a monster who must be hastened to his eternal reward. By then, however, he's building a criminal empire within the NYPD. The big question is whether Shea is unstoppable -- will he one day emerge as a law-and-order candidate for mayor? -- or if he will somehow be brought down. To put it another way, will the author have the courage of his convictions or wimp out in the end? I'll never tell.
To a degree, Bruen is offering the police point of view. He gives us cop's-eye glimpses of the world, like this one of Central Park: "You want to lose complete faith in the human race, troll the park for a few hours. We even came on a Frisbee thrower, nothing wrong there, save he'd lined the Frisbee with lead." In the real world, one cop declares, justice is dispensed in alleys, not in courtrooms. Another says, "If you police an armed society, you learn to shoot first or you're dead." That's chilling logic, but it helps explain why so many unarmed citizens are blown away each year by jittery officers of the law. Bruen flirts with an old question: Who polices the police? Many writers have shown us cops who are criminal or psychotic, but the assumption is generally that such men must be brought to justice. Bruen treats the question of police misconduct as a joke. He seems to be saying: I'm Irish, the world is mad -- and who gives a damn?
The novel is short and slapdash. It would be even shorter if Bruen had not written it in hundreds of one-sentence paragraphs. It has the feel of having been dashed off in a few weeks, but it possesses a blood-on-the-tracks fascination. You can accuse Bruen of various sins, but he has a distinct voice, and he's never less than readable. Put it this way: Last week I praised "The Glass of Time," Michael Cox's elegant portrait of love, luxury and crime in the Victorian era. "Once Were Cops" is designed to appeal to readers with less refined sensibilities.