A Handful of Ashes by Rob McCarthy

A Handful of Ashes
by Rob McCarthy
Pegasus Books, 2018

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Rob McCarthy, a London medical student, follows up his taut 2016 debut The Hollow Men with a new adventure starring his raggedly heroic young war veteran and police Force Medical Examiner Dr. Harry Kent. A Handful of Ashes starts with both of McCarthy's two main protagonists, Harry and Acting Detective Chief Inspector Frankie Noble (Harry's smart, prickly, ambitious former lover), at strained and over-extended periods in their lives and careers. Thanks to the sudden cancer diagnosis of her boss, Acting DCI Noble suddenly finds herself in charge 22 detectives on the Major Investigation Team when a woman's apparent suicide deepens into media-profile headline-grabbing murder case. And despite his affable exterior, Kent's life is in complete shambles:

On average, Harry slept between fifteen and twenty hours per week. He kept a bottle of amphetamines in his flat, care, and locker to keep him going. He spent four or five twelve-hour stints per week at the hospital, working in the A&E department, and despite that his career was going nowhere. He was meant to be a consultant by now, but that hadn't happened. He'd failed his fellowship exam, flunked out of the training programme, failed to demonstrate adequate progress in his latest year of training. Compared to his contemporaries, his portfolio was a mess. He lived alone and had a girlfriend he barely saw.

And in addition to all this – including that drug addiction, which McCarthy knows better than his readers he's sugar-coating – Kent spends chunks of his dwindling free time handing out fliers to people in the neighborhood, asking if anybody recognizes the anonymous young woman laying comatose at his hospital, nicknamed “Zara” but the subject of a borderline obsession on Kent's part.

Given all of these factors, both Kent and Noble would have preferred it if the dead woman at their new crime scene were actually the suicide she appears at first, sitting on a chair in her apartment, arms slit, a pool of blood under her. But Noble's instincts are alerted by factors she can't even identify, and when this causes her to bring Kent in (despite their explosive personal past), his own instincts catch the problem: the supposed suicide has contusion marks on her neck – somebody held her down while they cut at her arms. The police forensics team quickly confirms that this was a murder.

And not just any murder. The woman is Susan Bayliss, a cardiologist at Belgrave Hospital for Sick Children, who'd made national headlines as a whistleblower about a fellow doctor. Her suicide over this uproar would have been disgraceful; her murder blows the whole story to another order of magnitude. At the initial crime scene, Kent is at first quietly contemplative:

Had that been the last thing Susan Bayliss had ever felt? Harry wondered. Warm early-morning summer air blowing in through the window? Her life had ended in a wicker chair turned to face out of the balcony doors. Harry followed her dead eyes out and took in the view again. It was probably better at night than in the daytime, and she hadn't enjoyed the sunrise. The proof of that was the thick lake of blood that the chair stood in, a rich black scarlet against the varnished wooden flooring.

But Susan Bayliss' body has many more stories to tell, and since Noble is under pressure to bring the investigation home, Kent is caught in the middle, drawn into a case that McCarthy steadily complicates with a steadier hand than was evident in The Hollow Men, which was slow to reach its proper cruising speed. A Handful of Ashes is a faster, surer book in every way, with major and minor characters fleshed out with economic precision (in particular Kent's natural deductive abilities are never discussed but always obvious), and the pacing compulsively ratchets up as the book progresses. Even the one plot-thread that at first seems extraneous – the comatose woman Zara – becomes the touchstone for the book's absolutely harrowing final scene. With this novel an earnest but fairly standard crime fiction novel at once becomes a seriously impressive series.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com