Friday 27 April 2018

My debt to a fictional PI, and the man who created him

The songs and albums of Johnny Duhan are often referred to in the Jack Taylor stories of Ken Bruen. Here, the singer-songwriter explains how he first became aware of the fact and what it has meant to him over the years

BOOST FROM A FICTIONAL FAN: Jack Taylor, the PI created by Ken Bruen name-checks the songs and albums of Johnny Duhan, — a fact which has provided a boost in album sales
BOOST FROM A FICTIONAL FAN: Jack Taylor, the PI created by Ken Bruen name-checks the songs and albums of Johnny Duhan, — a fact which has provided a boost in album sales
Crime Writer Ken Bruen

I was sad to learn from one of Ken Bruen's many American followers recently that Ken's most famous private dick, Jack Taylor (a Galway legend by this stage), has decided, after the publication of Green Hell (the 11th instalment of Jack's hairy investigative shenanigans around Galway City), to hang up his badge and fade into the misty sunset somewhere south of Mutton Island, the bunghole of Galway City.

A US fan of Ken's, who contacted me, John McKenna (not the Irish ex-RTE John MacKenna with the a in his Mac, but one of the many fervent US followers of Jack Taylor who have purchased my albums over the years on the strength of Jack's recommendation), informed me that "in Mr Bruen's new book, on page 190, after one of his harrowing escapades out in the dank streets of the tribal city, Jack, back on the drink, comments: 'When I got to my apartment I found Johnny Duhan had sent me a copy of his new album, Winter. The first track might have been written by my own heart, Charity of Pain. I muttered, "God bless your genius soul, Johnny.'"

I first learned that Jack Taylor was a fan of my songs way back when part one of the Jack Taylor series, The Guards, was published in 2001, to a fanfare of glowing international reviews. The surprise discovery came to me in the public forum of an anniversary concert held by Brandon Books in a hotel in Dingle at which Ken and I (both Brandon authors at the time) were part of the billing. I had known that Ken was an admirer of my songwriting for some time, and though we had travelled to Kerry together for the Brandon celebratory event and were even nesting at the same five-star guest house on the sea-front across from the dark choppy waters where the famous dolphin Fungi was said to entertain the bathers, he managed to take me completely by surprise.

In the middle of his reading performance at the concert that night, the title of my first album, Just Another Town, tripped lightly off Ken's tongue-in-cheek in the context of being one of Jack Taylor's favourite albums (the only other person who had given Just Another Town top rating before this time was RTE's John MacKenna in his seminal series of radio documentaries on Irish and international songwriters, Songpeople).

I can't recall the exact comment that Jack made on my album in the pages of The Guards and I can't look it up because the singer Ronnie Drew (a big fan of crime fiction in his day) borrowed my signed copy during a visit to our home a year or so before he died. But that first appearance of my name in Ken's novel led on to many other mentions of my albums and songs in Ken's pages as the Jack Taylor series unfolded over the next 15 years, and each mention of my name in the books resulted in a hike in worldwide sales of my albums (not spectacular numbers but enough to keep the motor chugging in my craft as it strained against the ever-changing currents of the mainstream).

Because my name and the titles of my songs and albums feature in quite a few of the Jack Taylor novels, I have read many of them over the years (motivated by vanity mainly, it must be admitted), and I've been impressed by the contemporary feel Ken strives to bring to his work.

While scouring the dark, narrow lanes and antique bars around Shop Street in pursuit of rough justice, Jack opened a window on the disturbing nature of popular culture. The Galway that Ken portrays is a microcosm not only of other Irish cities but of cities all over the world, as they draw on the vices as well as the graces emanating from the heart of universal culture in our time, the US.

Some years back, another of Ken's ardent American admirers, Rod Norman, who ran a popular online blog, Signs & Wonders, questioned me on how I had got to know Ken. This was my answer: "A friend told me that Ken liked my songs at a time when few in the music business acknowledge my existence, even in Ireland. I hadn't a clue who Ken was at that time. When we eventually met at a coffee shop on Quay Street, we immediately hit it off. Our mutual love of poetry and song kept the conversation burning from the word go."

When the Jack Taylor novels first appeared I found it unusual that a rural ex-guard should have such a fixation on poetry and song. In Galway, Jack was a bit of an outsider. He didn't mingle with the arty set and never received invitations from the literati to attend art functions or literary events.

He was well respected by the ordinary Galway citizenry, however, and the poor and disadvantaged always had a soft spot for him because of his innate sympathy for the downtrodden. He will be missed also by the growing number of aggrieved citizens in the city who more and more are being affected by the growing crime wave that the regular Garda force seem hard pressed to contain.

As a mark of gratitude for gaining me so many sympathetic listeners around the world, I would like to take this opportunity to extend an open invitation to Ken and his wife Phil and their daughter Grace to attend a solo show I have coming up in the Town Hall, Galway on September 18. Who knows? Maybe Jack himself might even show up and give us a reading from Green Hell.

At a time when the general public seem interested only in mega gigs, I can't assure him of a full house, but I'm sure Jack will appreciate the gambit I often draw on for low turnouts: "The glass may be only half full, but that's what keeps me sober."


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