Review: The Dramatist by Ken Bruen

Roughly as many friends told me I would love Ken Bruen as told me I wouldn’t. I would love him because he is a brilliant writer or I wouldn’t because noir is not really my thing and/or I wouldn’t ‘get’ him.

‘They’ (or half of them anyway) were right. I loved The Dramatist.

It is the fourth novel in a series featuring Jack Taylor, former policeman in the Irish Guarda with a self-destructive personality that manifests itself most obviously in a series of addictions (alcohol, booze, nicotine) and poor handling of personal relationships. At the start of The Dramatist he is newly sober (through choice) and free of illegal drugs (because his cocaine dealer is in prison). Ostensibly the plot is driven by Taylor being asked by said drug dealer to investigate the death of his sister which has been ruled an accident by police. But really it is just the continuing story of Jack’s meandering, blighted life.

I don’t know how to pitch that the story of one Irish drunk’s life is worth reading so you’ll just have to trust me. Despite the fact that Jack’s investigation runs to not much more than a couple of phone calls and badgering one of his old colleagues a few times there is a load going on here and it’s all captivating. With black ‘you should feel guilty for laughing’ humour Jack struggles with his addictions, entangles himself with women, a priest and some nasty vigilantes and observes the political and social changes in his world in a way that makes it impossible to stop reading. I should also point out that although I haven’t read the first three books in the series there are enough reminiscences to ensure I didn’t feel lost.

The story is told in Jack’s first-person point of view which is normally not something I enjoy but is well-suited here as it allows us to see the best and the worst of Jack who may not be likable but is compelling. Friends, of the kind that don’t mind being dismissed most of the time, and the inevitable enemies swirl in and around Jack’s life. Sometimes he is nice to them, like the lovely moment when he tries to cheer up the elderly lady who runs the small hotel he lives in, but more often he isn’t, because it just doesn’t come naturally. All of them though are totally believable and I really did get sucked into this world. I was going to say ‘drawn into’ but that would suggest I had a choice and after the first 10 minutes or so I had to keep listening.

To be fair the other half of my friends were right too, I don’t always enjoy noir. It’s not the darkness of the subject I mind nearly as much as when there is absolute certainty from the outset that the darkness will prevail.  Where there is certainty there is boredom for me as a reader. I like most of all to be kept wondering. What Bruen does to perfection  with The Dramatist is tease readers with the possibility that things might not end in darkness after all. While there are events in the story that are very dark indeed there are also incidents in which things for Jack border on peachy and therein lies the tantalising hook. Will this incident trigger his downward spiral? Or that one? Or might there not be a downturn at all? Until the last moment of the book I didn’t know and that’s all I can ask.

If you’ve read Charles Ardai’s brilliant definition of noir (and if you haven’t, go now) then you’ll know that

“In noir novels…any apparent order is generally illusory; things don’t work the way they’re supposed to; justice is rare and, when present, often accidental….It’s a broken promise. It’s a book that betrays us and that we love for it…”

That’s The Dramatist in a nutshell: accidental justice and a brutally broken promise. It was the end that tipped the book from good to great for me. It’s 36 hours since I uttered a loud “no” upon hearing the completely unexpected event as I walked through my office building’s lobby and I still can’t quite rid myself of a lingering sadness (not to mention the funny looks I’m still getting from the security guards who were on duty at the time). But I also know that the ending was the perfect one for the book and that’s such a rare thing to find that I will savour it, sadness and all.

What about the audio book?

With the story being written from the first person point of view and with Gerry O’Brien’s mild Irish lilt I really felt like Jack Taylor was telling me his own story in his own words.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 5/5
Narrator Gerry O’Brien
Publisher Isis Audio Books [this edition 2010, originally 2003]
ISBN N/A (audio download)
Length 4 hours 24 minutes
Format download from
Source My collection

This entry was posted in book review, Ireland, Ken Bruen. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Review: The Dramatist by Ken Bruen

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this! OK, you’ve convinced me. Like you, noir is not as much my thing, and I often find the first-person point of view not as engaging as other points of view. But it sounds like an extremely absorbing book. I suppose I will step outside my usual realm of “What Margot likes to read” and give it a go.


  2. Jose Ignacio says:

    How can I resist this one? I can’t, another one that will go right into my pile. Anyway thanks for your review Bernadette.


  3. kathy durkin says:

    Wow! What a fascinating review. It just tantalizes a reader. So I’ll also suspend my skepticism of noir fiction and add this to the TBR list. And I like to read about Ireland, land of half of my family’s heritage. Someday I’ll read it, even faster if I see it at the library, longer if I have to reserve it. But the review is a pleasure to read and ponder.


  4. @Margot I know what you mean about reading outside the comfort zone, I tend to think that when there’s so much good stuff inside my comfort zone there’s no need to go outside it 🙂 With this one I chose to read it because Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog raved about Bruen and on the same day a work colleague told me that I wouldn’t ‘get it’ so I shouldn’t bother. Nothing riles me more than being thought ‘unmovable’ on an issue so then I had to read it, even though I know that noir and I often don’t get on.

    @Kathy thanks for the kind words about the review. I spent more time than usual on this one, felt I had to do justice to the book. I hope you like it if you give it a go. I have only seen reviews of it that rave or that hate – nothing in the middle so it’s bound to evoke a strong reaction either way 🙂


  5. kathy durkin says:

    Well, Bernadette, I certainly would read a book just because someone said “I wouldn’t get it!” Now that’s throwing down the gauntlet to me. (That’s like my dad telling me not to read a certain book when I was 15: what did I do? Get the book the very next day! I


  6. Keishon says:

    Excellent review Bernadette and I hope you continue to enjoy his work.


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  8. Jane C. Britt says:

    Bernadette, what an amazing review!

    I stopped reading Bruen’s Jack Taylor series after the first three…and here you’ve intrigued me to read his #4.

    The depth of your review justifies the time you spent writing it. It beckons other readers! Come on—give Jack another chance!



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