CITY OF ROSE By Rob Hart Reviewed

Book Two in the Ash McKenna Series

Rob Hart
Polis Books
February 2016

It’s unfair to compare someone’s follow-up book based solely on the preceding work. Each instalment should be judged on its own merits, but in the case of Rob Hart’s sophomore effort, CITY OF ROSE, all I could think about was, “How is this going to work?”

The answer of course is, “Very well.”

In NEW YORKED, Hart introduced us to Ash McKenna, a self-styled “blunt instrument” who operates as an unlicensed private investigator who does favors for friends in need. Ash sets out on a violent mission of vengeance when his one true love is found murdered. The reader is witness to Ash’s tour of violence as he chases down every clue, every hint of what happened when Chell was killed. Now here’s the thing: on this rampage of vengeance, the city of New York becomes the story’s star. Ash’s New York is a living, breathing thing. And next to Chell, the city is the only other thing Ash holds dear in his heart. And then, when it’s over? When the killer is found and the blood is drying? Ash looks inside himself and doesn’t like what he sees. So he does the only thing he can do. Ash leaves the city he loves in order to save his soul.

So how can you tell a Batman story without Gotham? What is Ash McKenna without New York?

When CITY OF ROSE opens, Ash is no longer an unofficial PI; he’s now an unofficial bouncer. At a strip club in Portland. A vegan strip club. Because, Portland. On a path of spiritual recovery, Ash has cleaned himself up. No more smoking, drinking Jameson, or doing recreational drugs. And no more violence. He’s trying real hard. It also means he’s getting his butt handed to him regularly, because he isn’t much use in a fight any more, but he’s more than happy to take a punch so no one else has to. Add these bruises to Ash’s complete and total fish-out-of-water New-Yorker-in-Portland vibe, and the first half of the story is surprisingly wry. Ash’s narration is endearing and wonderfully charming.

Crystal is one of the dancers at Naturals, the club where Ash works. When her daughter disappears, she suspects it’s the girl’s father who has made off with her. Crystal is convinced the police would have zero sympathy for her, since she’s a mother who happens to be a stripper and a recovering addict. Feeling like she’s out of options, she turns to Ash for help tracking down her daughter, Rose. Teaming up with Crystal, we now see things from the perspective of Crystal being on her home turf, and Ash being the outsider. Batman is no longer in Gotham. He’s in Metropolis now. And he has no idea where the hell anything is.

And the transit system sucks.

And the pizza is garbage.

And the guy at the liquor store gives him crap for buying macro brewery beer.

The humor here was refreshing. Ash has his demons, and he absolutely fits in the classic tight-lipped tough guy mold, but having him paired with Crystal is genius. This way, Hart gives us a logical device to get Ash talking. Crystal keeps asking Ash about himself so she can keep her mind occupied and not slide into panic.  Ash and Crystal stumble around Portland, pretty much clutching at threads. Eventually finding the thread that to the conspiracy that leads to the missing Rose, Ash is forced to fight against his true nature. Hart presents the hard questions, the questions that most people don’t want to find the answers to: who are we really? And can a person really grow and become someone new?

Like Ash’s adventures in Portland, Rob Hart gives us something new as well. CITY OF ROSE shows wonderful growth and change from his debut NEW YORKED. Adding in layers of dry humor and using Ash’s internal monologue to not only be sarcastic, but to give Ash added dimension is exactly what readers were hoping for.

Dan Malmon