Tuesday, May 05, 2009

“American Skin” opens with the scene of a chilling car chase followed by a gruesome murder of a young family. A character is introduced as dark and as gruesome as any that has stalked the pages of a crime novel.

The plot of the novel involves a bank heist has gone terribly wrong. One bank robber is dead, another, the hero Stephen Burke, has fled the country while a third, Stapleton an unstable IRA man, has gone into hiding. Later he will emerge hell bent on retrieving his share of the spoils.

With relative ease the novel moves back and forth both in place and time. Flashbacks drive the story on rather than hinder it. The author at first leads us on a merry dance as the novel is not told in strict chronological order. Layer by layer is striped away until all is revealed for the reader to gaze at in wide eyed horror.

Aficionados will recognise the integral ingredients of a Bruen novel, music and literature. Musical references are scattered throughout, Tammy Wynett, Tom Waits, The Pogues and Grechen Peters. Writers also make an appearance with mention of fellow crime protagonists James Lee Burke and Andrew Vachss, not to mention literary giants Kate O’Brien and Charles Bukowski.

In the past Ken Bruen, has set sections of previous novels in America, but in “American Skin” you get the feeling that here, at last, is his long awaited homage to all that is wonderful about the country. At times it is almost as if the country itself is a protagonist in the tale. The title “American Skin” comes courtesy of Bruce Springsteen. You can’t get any more American than that.

Bruen is at his best when he portrays the psychotic American drifter Dade. From the beginning of the novel Dade portrays a real sense of menace and the reader get the feeling that this is one particular character they would not like to meet under any circumstances.

Dade though is just one of a number of psychotic American characters who operate on the wrong side of the law. Juan, a New York gangster and drug user and Shelly his unstable wife are two individuals well written, dangerous and intriguing.

However when describing Stephen Burke, Bruen tends to overdose on the sentimentality. In particular when Burke recalls the decline and eventual demise, of his unstable friend Tommy. But then again this is noir and that sentimentality may very well be the point.

“American Skin” is written in the classic noir tradition and is a must read for those readers who like their fiction pitch black.


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