home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


8 june 2007

Calibre is the first book of Ken Bruen's that I've read, and it isn't much like any other crime novel that I know, though presumably it is like Ken Bruen's others. I want to read more of them.

Calibre takes place in a world where the police are more corrupt than the criminals. The world of many a hard-boiled yarn, for sure, but in Calibre it's a cheerful, even comical world. No tone of aggrieved moralism interrupts the quite incredibly slimy fun being had by bad guys and good guys alike. And the heck of it is, if you were at risk of being maltreated by really bad guys, you would probably want Bruen's really bad cops to protect you. They have no principles whatsoever, but they get quick and long-lasting results.

Bruen's writing is slightly reminiscent of the novels that Julian Barnes wrote using the pen-name Dan Kavanagh: English settings with maximum sordidness and double-crossing afoot. Bruen is somewhat reminiscent of Ed McBain, too. In fact Bruen invokes McBain often. Another unique twist to the mix of high and low comedy with hard-boiled corruption is the aggressively metaliterary nature of Calibre. Both the central serial killer (one of the book's main narrators) and the principal detective (an uninhibited, appallingly sleazy detective named Brant) are voracious readers of hard-boiled fiction and true-crime books. Not only do the killer and the cop recognize and admire each other's literary tastes, but the cop identifies the killer by lining up one his favorite books with clues that the killer has left in the usual police-taunting letters.

So this is fiction in the vein of McBain, Parker, and Elmore Leonard that knows it is fiction in that vein, and that pays attention to more distant masters like Raymond Chandler, as well. In fact, Brant is even writing a detective novel called Calibre (or rather, in the best postmodern mode, plagiarizing it from a colleague) while the novel Calibre takes place around him. Neither mystery nor procedural, Calibre conjures up a milieu where hard-boiled dialogue and incident can flourish for their own sake. Calibre is also an ensemble novel. Brant is the nominal hero of the book, perhaps, but equal time is given to his colleagues, who are sort of like the cast of Barney Miller turned loose in much more dangerous circumstances. Bruen's cops spend most of their time concerned with sex, couture, drink, drugs, and how not to pick up checks. They range from simpatico to reprehensible. It is a wonder that British society can function at all, given such a police force. But of course there is no attempt at realism here. We are in a universe made up of bits of other fictional universes, a free-floating realm where the language of the police novel can spin its magic.

The amorality and callousness of this universe, not to mention its sexism, racism, and cynicism, are so extreme that one does stop and wonder at times about the appeal of such fiction. Calibre is postmodern and multicultural, a detective novel for members of the Modern Language Association, like me. But why do we like to read about someone like Brant, who embodies everything we abhor? I feel my own (perhaps peculiarly American) moralism, temporarily suspended in the reading, begin to reassert itself. Reading a novel like Calibre is like listening to the comedy of Sarah Silverman: one feels safely on the side of the angels, but one gets to hear and laugh at everything the devils insist upon. I'm not sure what to make of that phenomenon. But I'll have to read more crime fiction by Ken Bruen and think more about it.

Bruen, Ken. Calibre. New York: St. Martin's, 2006.