Priest opens with its anti-hero, Jack Taylor, having been virtually catatonic in an asylum for five months, following the event that occurred at the very end of The Dramatist. If you have read the earlier novel you will not think that unreasonable at all (and if you haven’t Jack does explain early on what led him to his current low point). But a chance encounter pulls him out of his fugue state in time to leave the institution and be called upon by his old nemesis, Father Malachy to investigate the beheading of a local priest.
That synopsis makes the book sound more like a traditional crime novel than it really is, when really the crimes are a device for Bruen to explore the changes he has observed in Irish society. The most significant of these is the impact of the exposure of widespread paedophilia by Catholic priests and the sustained cover-up by the Church. The impact on individuals, as Jack tracks down two men who were abused by the recently murdered priest, is beautifully depicted, though, of course, extremely sad. And through the first-person telling of the story by Jack we also see the impact on the wider society which was once, in various ways, held together by the Church and its representatives (the priests) and is now adrift somewhat without the familiar anchor. Having been raised Catholic (now lapsed) I have read and watched whatever I can get my hands on about this theme, both fiction and non-fiction, and I cannot recall having read anything which depicts the far-reaching impacts of this series of events as thoughtfully, intelligently and accurately as has been done here. Bruen has teased out what the media coverage, with its sensational headlines and moving on to the next story after 5 minutes, always misses: the lasting impact on victims, their families and all the connected people who’ve had their beliefs shattered.
Jack is more ‘together’ than he thinks he has a right to be here, though ‘together’ is a relative term. He acquires a home (several at one point), and a trainee and does his job with a little more dedication than in the previous novel though he is, at heart, one of life’s losers which is soon borne out. Though he is a loser with the soul of a poet and his ode to Ireland, and its people, which is partly what this book felt like to me, is quite haunting. As is his depiction of both alcoholism and depression and their effects upon the sufferer, which makes more sense and has more clarity than most of the non-fiction you’ll read on either subject.
The rest of the characters are somewhat minor players who surround Jack for the most part but even if their appearance is fleeting they’re all brilliantly drawn. One who stood out for me was a nun who looked after Father Joyce (prior to his beheading). I might have grown up half a world away from Ireland but I know nuns exactly like her: sharing both behaviour and fears. Bruen has captured perfectly the impact the Church’s hierarchy enforced social deprivations has on such a person.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Jack Taylor and his exploits make for melancholy reading but Bruen manages, through a combination of humour and wonderfully crisp writing that doesn’t enable the reader to wallow in despair, to make it an enjoyable experience. I’m being a bit harsh in not giving the book a full 5 stars but the ending was a smidgen less brilliant than the ending of its predecessor so I thought it only fair to knock off a half a star.
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My rating 4.5/5
Author website http://www.kenbruen.com/
Publisher Corgi Books 
Length 183 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #5 in the Jack Taylor series
Source I bought it