The Magdalen Martyrs (2005) by Ken Bruen is the third book in the Jack Taylor series. Irishman and ex-Guard, Jack Taylor is a on again/off again alcoholic who was kicked out of the Guards due to his drinking. He’s tackled some interesting cases in the past while continuing to drown out his demons with alcohol and drugs. His next case is a whopper.
In ‘The Magdalen Martyrs’ Jack is now sober and works as a part-time private investigator. Due to previous events, Jack owes a debt to a man most people fear. He is asked by an old school friend and gangster, Bill Cassell, to track down Rita Monroe, a woman who once worked with his mother in the Magdalen laundry. Supposedly, she helped Bill’s mother to escape. Here is a bit of Irish history for you. The Magdalen laundry was apart of the rehabilitation movement for women during the 19th Century, women who had “fallen from grace.” These women were unmarried mothers, social outcasts and prostitutes.
The laundry was run by nuns but there was a staff member who worked there that the girls nicknamed “Lucifer” because she was the devil incarnate. She would make the girls do penance by beating and torturing them. In fact, she despised them. There are more than a few scattered scenes or “flashbacks” interweaved throughout the story that gives readers an idea of what “hell on earth” was like for them. The conditions were said to be “appallingly bad.” A lot of these girls died at the laundry, never to return home or to society and thus they were considered “martyrs” because they suffered out of love.
Jack gets distracted on this case by agreeing to investigate a widow whose husband dies suspiciously. Cassell and his cronies help Jack to “refocus” with a game of Russian Roulette. This humiliation sets Jack back to drinking again because when the story starts, he’d been somewhat on the wagon. He strikes back at Cassell and his muscle men. The one thing that I like about Jack is that when he hits back, he hits back hard. This is a man who has problems with authority and being an ex-guard certainly helps with his reputation. In many Galwegians estimation, The Guards are a somewhat shady police force who most people give a wide berth.
While the cases in this story are interesting, they are not really the focus per se. Fifty year old Jack Taylor carries this series and his life is a mess. Often Jack describes himself as being full of “self-pity” and a “bastard.” Although he often does things that are reprehensible he is not without a moral compass. He reluctantly clings to a small circle of friends who give him much needed support: the owners of the bar he hangs out at called Nestor’s, the eighty year old landlord at Bailey’s Hotel where he lives and ex-guard, Brendan Flood.
Jack seems to be forever tied to the past. Even though his career ended with the Guards, he refuses to return his all weather coat referred to as “Item 8234” to the Department of Justice and when someone tries to burn it, he retorts “That, lady, is my history, my career, the only link to my past.” What I really like about Jack is his passion for books. Often he quotes or recalls certain passages from some of the best writers of fiction from Raymond Chandler to Lawrence Block to name a few. When his house gets ram-shacked, the first thing he does is rebuild his library. I love a man who reads.
Jack is a dark and edgy guy who has a razor sharp tongue. I’ve enjoyed reading this series despite my disgust at his self-destructiveness. Bruen is a solid and well respected writer. I’ve gotten used to his prose style which is unique and I love how he utilizes aptly phrased quotes from books that are used to make a point in reference to a character or scene. There ‘s a lot of scenes in here worth quoting but I’ll give you a brief taste. Here’s a scene where Jack see’s his mother at a coffee shop. The two are estranged. He pulls up this quote to mimic the moment:
Once in Carol O’Connell’s The Judas Child, I’d come across
Her child needed a covert source of facts, the help of a dirty, backdoor invader, a professional destroyer of private lives, who well understood the loathsome workings of the world’s worst scum.
So this is motherhood.
And I loved this quote that Jack pulls up from Daniel Buckman, The Names of Rivers:
“Life taught me a long time ago to leave be anything that’s got more teeth than me.”
The Magdalen Martyrs was a WIN for me because I learned a little something about Irish history albeit not one of it’s most shining moments and the pacing of the story was pretty consistent. The ending again left me unsatisfied and baffled. I’m starting to suspect this is a Bruen trademark. I kept swiping at the screen on my iPhone for about 10 seconds before I realized that I had reached the end. I wasn’t ready for the ending that I got. I was ready for Act II. My grade, B+. By far my favorite in the series. There were some other elements to the plot that I didn’t mention for fear of spoilers.