Some are born to endless night

‘The Magdalen Martyrs’ pits noir dysfunction against religious depravity

Life as an unwed mother, a prostitute or a rebellious young woman has never been easy in patriarchal civilization.

But the way society treats women who transgress has rarely reached a point as repugnant as the Roman Catholic Church’s Magdalen Asylums in Ireland.

These brutal quasiprisons, recently exposed in the 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters,” took in as many as 30,000 women from 1880 until the last one closed in 1996. According to many reports, the women were virtually slaves, abused and belittled by nuns and priests as they worked in horrible conditions in the asylum laundries.

Ken Bruen’s “The Magdalen Martyrs,” which appeared this month in its first U.S. edition, probes the legacy of pain and hatred the Magdalen Asylums created.

In his third novel featuring the city of Galway, Ireland, native Jack Taylor, a disgraced cop and lackluster private eye, Bruen uses the Magdalen tragedy to explore the ways institutional crimes create horrible personal consequences across generations.

Jack is a somewhat worthless private investigator, and his commission from a local gangster to find a woman who helped the gangster’s mother get out of a Magdalen Asylum gets little of his attention. Something should tip him off this simple request is a bit fishy, but Jack is too engrossed in literature, drink and a cocaine habit to notice.

Bruen’s approach to writing noir crime fiction preserves the genre’s cynicism and casual violence. But his habit of allowing Jack to insert pithy quotations from a wide variety of authors breaks up the grim unfolding of the plot and provides a bit of intellectual uplift for the reader.

While Jack wanders the streets of Galway, bemoaning his addictions and grieving for the many clients, friends and relatives who have died more or less as a result of his neglect, he manages to ignore the obvious perils that surround him. Bruen adeptly creates a sense of gloomy menace around his hero that provides the reader both with a pleasurable sense of foreboding and a warning not to fall into the same patterns.

The juxtapositioning of the starkly moralistic character of the Magdalen Asylums and Jack’s own moral lapses forces the reader to admit trying to do the right thing is a tough proposition at best and nearly impossible for most people, most of the time.

While our day-to-day trials might not read like a hard-boiled detective story, the gruesome consequences of Jack’s inaction and descent into depression present an important caution. If we have the power to undo an evil, or even to ameliorate its effects, we must use it, or face the judgment of history.