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Catalog » Browse by Title: D » Dublin Noir (Ireland) » Excerpt from “Black Stuff” by Ken Bruen, from Dublin Noir

Dublin Noir (Ireland)

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Irish crime-fiction sensation Ken Bruen and cohorts shine a light on the dark streets of Dublin.

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Excerpt from “Black Stuff” by Ken Bruen, from Dublin Noir

ART: skill; human skill or workmanship. Then you got a whole page of crap on: Art

Like I’ve got the interest.


I was in the bookshop, killing time, saw the manager give me the look. That’s why I picked up a book, a goddamn dictionary, weighing like a ton, opened it to the bit on art. Glanced up, the manager is having a word with the security schumck.

Yeah, guys, I’m going to steal the heaviest tome in the shop.

Check my watch, Timex piece of shit, but it’s getting late. Tell you one thing, after the job, first item, a gold Rolex. The imitations are everywhere but the real deal . . . ah, slide that sucker on your wrist, dude, you are home. Cost a bundle, right?

The whole point, right?

On my way out, I touch the manager’s arm, the wanker jumps. I go, “Whoa . . . bit nervous there, pal? Could you help me?”

He has bad teeth, yellow with flecks of green, a little like the Irish flag. He stammered: “How, I mean . . . am . . . what?”

Dictionary for Dummies, you got that?”

His body language is assessing me and wanting to roar, “Nigger!

Man, I know it, you grow up black in a town like Dublin, you know.

He pulls himself together, those assertive training sessions weren’t blown, he gets a prissy clipped tone, asks, “And who would that help, might I inquire?”

You, buddy, you’d really benefit. See, next time a non-Caucasian comes in, you can grab your dummy dictionary, look up . . . discretion . . . and if that helps, go for it, check out assumptions, too, you’ll be a whole new man.” I patted his cheek, added: “You might also search for dentistry, Yellow Pages your best bet there.”


I was in the snug in Mulligans, few punters around.

A guy comes in, orders a drink, American accent but off, as if he’d learned it, says to Jeff, “Gordon’s on the rocks, splash of tonic.”

Then: “Bud back.”

Jeff gives him a look and the guy offers a hearty chuckle, explains, “I mean, as well as, guess you folk say . . . with it . . . or in addition to?” Was he going to give the whole nine?


He got the drinks, walked over, sat at my table, asked, “How you doing?”

Like every night in the city, some asshole does the same Joey Tribiani tired rap. I didn’t answer. Instead, I peeled a piece of skin on my thumb. He said, “You don’t wanna inflame that, buddy.”


So I asked, “You a doctor?”

He was delighted, countered, feigning surprise, “You’re Irish?” Not believing it, like I’m black, so come on. I nod and he takes a hefty slug of the gin, grimaces, then: “How’d that happen?”

I still don’t know why but I told him the truth. Usually, who gives a fuck?

Sean Connery said, tell them the truth, then it’s their problem. My mother was from Ballymun, yeah, Ireland’s most notorious housing estate. Fuck, there’s a cliché: She’d a one night stand with a sailor.

How feckin sad is that?,/P>

And not a white guy.

He asked, “So, was it, like . . . tough, am . . . ?”

I let that hover, let him taste it, then did the Irish gig, a question with a question. “Being black, or being fatherless?”

He went, “Uh huh.”

Noncommital or what?

I said, “Dublin wasn’t a city, it was still a town, and a small one, till the tiger roared.”

He interrupted: “You’re talking the Celtic Tiger, am I right?”

I nodded, continued, “So I was fourteen before I knew I was black, different.”

His glass was empty. I said, “They were on my ass because I was shit at hurling.”

He stared at his glass, like . . . where’s that go? Echoed, “Hurling, that’s the national game, yeah?”

I said, “Cross between hockey and murder.”

He stood, asked, “Get you a refill there?”

I decided to fuck with him a little, he said, “Large Jameson, Guinness back.”

The boilermaker threw him, but he rallied, said, “Me too.”

Got those squared away, raised the amber, clinked my glass, and you guessed it, said, “Here’s looking at you, pal.” Fuck on a bike.

The other side of the whiskey, I climbed down a notch, eased, but not totally.

He was assessing me, covertly, then: “Got some pecs on you there, fella. Hitting the gym, huh?”

He was right. Punishing program, keep the snakes from spitting, the ones in my head, the shrink had said. “You take your meds, the snakes won’t go away—we’re scientists, not shamans—but they will be quieter.

Shrink humor?

I quit the meds. Sure, they hushed the reptiles, but as barter, took my edge. I’d done some steroids, got those abs swollen, but fuck, it’s true, they cut your dick in half. And a black guy with shrinkage? . . . Depths of absurdity.

I was supping the Guinness, few better blends than the slow wash over Jameson. I said, “Yeah, I work out.”

He produced a soft pack of Camels, gold Zippo, then frowned, asked, “You guys got the no-smoking bug? . . . It’s illegal in here?” Like he didn’t know already. Then reached out his hand, said, “I’m Bowman, Charlie, my buddies call me Bow.”

I’m thinking, Call you arsehole.

And he waits till I extend my hand, the two fingers visibly crushed. He clocks them, I say, “Phil.”

He shakes my hand, careful of the ruined fingers, goes for levity, asks, “Phil, that it, no surname? C’mon buddy, we’re like bonding, am I right? How can I put it, Phil me in?” He laughed, expecting me to join.

I didn’t.

I said, “For Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy. You heard Lynott speak, his Dublin accent was near incomprehensible, but when he sang, pure rock. Geldof said Phil was the total rock star, went to bed in the leather trousers.”

Bow’s mouth was turned down. He said, “My taste runs more to Van Morrison.”


He spotted the book on the seat beside me, Bukowski, asked, “That’s yours, you’re into . . . Buk?”



My mother, broke, impoverished, sullen, ill, had instilled: “Never, and I mean never, let them know how smart you are.”

Took me a long time to assimilate that, too long. The days after her funeral, I’d a few quid from the horses, got a mason to carve:

Like that.

The mason, puzzled, asked, “The hell does that mean?” I gave him the ice eyes, he muttered, “Jeez, what’s wrong with Rest in peace?” I said, “That’s what it means, just another form.” He scratched his arse, said, “Means shite, you ask me.” He said this after I paid him.

So I threw a glance at the Bukowki. Denied him, going, “Not mine. I need books with, like, pictures.”


Bow and I began to meet, few times a week, no biggie, but it grew. Me, careful to play the dumbass, let him cream on his superiority. He paid the freight, I could mostly listen.

A month in, he asked, “You hurting there, Phil?”

I was mid-swallow, my second pint. I stopped, put the glass down, asked, “What?”

His eyes were granite, said, “Bit short on the readies . . . Hey, I’m not bitching.”

. . . (Oh yeah?)

“But there’s no free lunch. You familiar with that turn of phrase, black guy? When we freed your asses, we figured you might be self-sufficient. Maybe spring for the odd drink?”

I was thinking of how my mother would love this prick. He tapped his empty glass twice, then, “You’re good company, Phil, not the brightest tool in the box. This ride’s, like, coming to a halt.”

I was trying to rein it in, not let the snakes push the glass into his supercilious mouth, especially when he added: “You getting this? Earth to Leroy, like . . . hello?”

I was massaging my ruined fingers, remembering . . . One of the first jobs I did, driver for a post office stunt. I was younger, and dare I say . . . greener?

The outfit were northeners, had lost their driver at the last minute. How I got drafted.

They came out of the post office in Malahide, more a suburb of Dublin now, guns above their heads, screaming like banshees, piled into the back. The motor stalled. Only two minutes, but it was a long 120 seconds. By the Grand Canal, the effluent from the Liffey smelling to high heaven. Changing cars, they held me down, crushed my fingers, using the butt of a shotgun, the Belfast guy going, “Two minutes you lost, two fingers you blow.”


I stared at Bow, asked, “You have something in mind?”

The Zippo was flat on the table, I could see a logo: Focus.

He indicated it, said, “That’s the key. I’m thinking you could do with a wedge, a healthy slab of tax-free euros.”

Jeez, he was some pain in the arse, but I stayed . . . focused? . . . below radar, asked, “Who doesn’t?”

Looked like he might applaud, then, “I’m taking a shot here, but I’m figuring you know zilch about art.”

I stayed in role, asked, “Art who?”

Didn’t like it, I noticed. When he was bothered as he was now, the accent dipped. I smiled, thinking, Not so focused now, and certainly not American.

He gritted his teeth, grunted, “Art is . . . everything. All the rest is . . . a support system.” I leaned on the needle, said, “You like art, yeah?”

Thought he might come across the table, but he reined in, took a breath, a drink, said in a patient clipped tone, “Lesson one, you don’t like art, you appreciate it.”

I kept my eyes dull, and that’s an art.

He snapped, “You want to pay attention, fella, maybe you can learn something. I’m going to tell you about one of the very finest, Whistler.”

I resisted the impulse to put my lips together and like . . . blow.

He began: “There is a portrait by him, a ‘painted tribute to a gentle old lady.’ The lady looks old, but that’s because he was old when he did it. A time, 1871, when the railroads were about to replace the covered wagons. You see a white light wall, then . . .

“Straight curtain . . .

“Straight baseboard . . .

“Chair, footrest . . . straight . . .

“Everything is straightened out, the only roundness is her face. He titled it, Arrangement in Gray and Black. Moving along, you’ll see a silk curtain, in Japanese style, with a butterfly as decoration—his tribute to a country he admired. There’s a picture on the wall, and this is significant, as it’s the brightest white spot in the painting. The woman’s hands are white, her handkerchief is white, contrasting the black dress. Her bonnet has different shades to make her face benign, kindly. The entire ensemble is an homage to this lady, his mother, whom he adored.”

He waffled on for maybe another ten minutes, then finally stopped. Looked at me. I was going to go, I’m straight, but instead asked, “I need to know this . . . why?”

Now he smiled, said, “Because you and me, buddy, we’re going to steal it.”


The Musée d’Orsay had loaned it to the city of Dublin for six months. Had been on display for three now . . . in Merrion Square, the posh area of the city—a detail of Army and Gardai were keeping tabs. Once the initial flush of interest and fanfare died down, the crowds dropped off. More important events like the hurling final, race meetings, took precedence. Security, though in evidence, was more for show than intent. An indication of the public losing interest, the picture had been moved to Parnell Square, the other side of the Liffey, damnation in itself.

Bow said, “Lazy fuckers, last week they didn’t even bother to load the CCTV.”

“How do you know?” I asked. And got the frost smile, superior and not a mile from aggressive.

He used his index finger to tap his nose, said, “A guy on the museum staff? He’s got himself a little problem.” Did he mean cocaine or curiosity?

He continued: “I’ve helped him . . . get connected . . . and he’s grateful . . . and now he’s vulnerable. In ten days there will be a window in the security—the patrol is to be switched, the CCTV is to be revamped, there’ll only be two guys on actual watch. Can you fucking believe it?”

We hadn’t had a drink for over half an hour, the lecture was lengthy, so I injected a touch of steel, asked, “And the two, the ones keeping guard, they’re going to what, give it to us?”

Now he laughed, as if he’d been waiting for an excuse. “How fucking stupid are you?” Shaking his head, like good help was hard to find, he said, “We’re going to give them the gas.”


That’s what we did.

Dream job—in, out. No frills, no flak.

. . . Unless you count the dead guy.

We’d donned cleaner’s gear, always wanted to don something, gives that hint of gravitas. Bow said, “Help us blend.” Especially in my case, sign of the new Ireland, black guy riding a mop, no one blinked an eye.

We’d become America.

Them janitor blues, pushing dee broom, miming dee black and sullen—translate: invisible.

The guards, one in mid-yawn. We hit them fast, tied them up, tops, four minutes. I didn’t glance at the painting, was fearful it might remind me of my mother. Bow did, I heard the catch in his breathing. Then we were almost done, reached the back door, when a soldier came out of nowhere, a pistol in his hand, roared, “Hold on just a bloody minute!”

Bow shot him in the gut. I’d been going for the gas. I stared at Bow, whined, “No need for that.”

The smirk, his mouth curled down, he put two more rounds in the guy, asked, “Who’s talking about need?”