City of Rose by Rob Hart

Rob Hart“If collecting scars by means of stupidity were a hobby, I’d be ready to go pro.” — Ash McKenna

When readers last saw Staten Island born and bred bouncer/amateur private investigator Ash McKenna (New Yorked), he’d been through the ringer trying to get to the bottom of the murder of his longtime friend and unrequited love, Chell. Along the way things got rough and people, including Ash, got roughed up.

Having burned a few bridges and ruffled more than a few feathers, Ash decides it’s time to take a leave of absence from his beloved New York City. He ends up in Portland, Oregon, working as a bouncer at a vegan strip club named Naturals.

Determined to leave his past in the past, Ash has embraced non-violence and is determined not to slip back into his old ways—control your anger before it controls you is his new mantra. So it’s with only the slightest hesitation that Ash refuses a request from one of Naturals’ dancers, Crystal, to help her locate her missing daughter.

A funny thing happens on the way to tranquility, however. Only minutes after Ash turns down Crystal’s request he is abducted at gunpoint—by a man wearing a chicken mask, no less—and warned off having anything to do with Crystal or the search for her missing daughter. Bad move. There are many things Ash McKenna does not like, but top of the list is being told what to do, or not do as the case may be. Add to the mix the fact Chicken Man breaks Ash’s phone during the abduction and, well, it’s on.

New Yorked, the debut from author Rob Hart that introduced Ash McKenna, was a powerhouse of a book, the kind that makes you both anticipate the follow-up, but also wonder how the author can possibly top it. In a move that bodes very well for the future of Ash McKenna, Hart chose to actually pull back a bit in City of Rose rather than try to go bigger. It’s a move that serves both the story and the character well.

Though it hasn’t been a significant amount of time since the events in New Yorked, Ash has grown significantly emotionally in that time—he’s a little less angry, a little more reserved, and much more willing to (try to) turn the other cheek. The events of City of Rose force him to continue that growth, and it’s a pleasure to see a character who is more than capable of dishing out a beating be genuinely reluctant to do so because he knows it will tap into a dark place he is desperately trying to avoid.

And while the plot of City of Rose is certainly not trivial—a missing child, a drug cartel, an amoral “fixer,” and a seriously motivated, well-connected, powerful man with lofty ambitions all factor in—it’s the internal struggle Ash deals with throughout that is the engine that really drives the story. He wants desperately to be a better man, to find some inner peace, and in his mind that means sloughing off all remnants of his confrontational and violent past. Causing him great conflict, however, is the fact he has an equally powerful inner moral compass, one that demands he do the right thing as he sees it, which in this case is to help Crystal find her daughter. This necessarily puts Ash right back into the mix of confrontation and violence, and he struggles to get through the situation with a minimal amount of both.

Hart’s evolution of Ash from New Yorked to City of Rose is a joy to behold, as are Ash’s wry observations under even the most dire of circumstances, so it’s comforting to know at least two more Ash McKenna books are already in the works. Look for South Village in October of this year.

City of Rose is available now from Polis Books (ISBN: 978-1940610511).

Rob Hart is the author of New Yorked and City of Rose. His short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Needle, Thuglit, Joyland, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Nailed, and the Powell’s bookstore blog. His short story “How to Make the Perfect New York Bagel” received honorable mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. Another short story, “Foodies,” was nominated for a Derringer Award. Find him online at his website and on Twitter.
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