This book is a noir cupcake—tasty comfort food sprinkled with bits of wisdom, such as “Fuck, man. You can’t trust anyone who doesn’t get a Johnny Cash reference” and “If collecting scars by means of stupidity were a hobby, I’d be ready to go pro.” It’s crime fiction that delights and reassures us of the genre pleasures: the under-line-able one-liners, the chapter that ends with somebody getting thudded in the head, and of course the Philip Marlowe-ish protagonist whose tough, bitter exterior belies a soft spot for this crazy world.
City of Rose—Rob Hart’s second novel featuring Ash McKenna, a gruff New Yorker who claims he’s “not a detective. I’m just some asshole who’s good at hitting people and can be occasionally clever” (which is pretty much the standard definition of the detective in American fiction)—is set in Portland, a city that’s come to occupy a weird niche in our cultural imagination. It’s a place where “[e]very menu in this town includes at least one instance of the word ‘artisanal,’” and where there are vegan strip clubs. Ash works as the bouncer-janitor-dishwasher at Naturals. This is where he meets Crystal, an ex-drug-addicted stripper whose daughter Rose is missing. This is how he gets pulled back into the game.
To nab a line from crime writer Sara Gran, every detective story is a missing girl story. It’s true of New Yorked, the first novel in the series, in which Ash longs after his deceased beloved Chell, and it’s true here, with Ash and Crystal working together to find Rose, who’s been kidnapped as part of a convoluted political scheme. They encounter the usual obstacles: thugs, drugs, and threats—which, as a total side note, why haven’t the villains in books and movies ever learned that threatening folks never works? Like ever! (A part of me longs for a trope-defying crime novel that ends abruptly and dully, with the protagonist quitting on the central case after being threatened enough.) Together, Ash and Crystal traverse plenty of zany Portland terrain. There’s Powell’s, a Prius, and the Plaid Pantry. And the obligatory hipster hating, of course, with Ash declaring, “It’s like Williamsburg Junior. Same vibe. Goofy fucking hipster kids who are nostalgic for things they never knew.” So sorry Portland, now that you’ve been reduced to a jungle gym of trendy, loath-able clichés.
City of Rose is playful, snappy, and fun—especially compared to New Yorked, which holds to a more somber, ghost-haunted tone throughout. The Portland setting allows Hart to play into his knacks for dialogue and comedic scene setting. For instance, upon being offered a taste-test of Naturals’ vegan nacho cheese, Ash politely declines by saying, “I am not putting nut butters in my mouth.” Or, after spending two pages hunting down a pay phone, he tells his old hacker friend Bombay—because how can you be a useful protagonist and not have an old hacker friend?—“Oh, now you can text me? Why not do that in the first place, instead of sending me trekking through fucking Mordor to find a pay phone?” There’s also an extended vomiting bit that gloriously recalls Chunk’s confessional monologue from The Goonies. It’s to Hart’s credit that he can turn upchucking into such comic gold.
There are some weaker elements, yes. The political angle is introduced too late to resonant in any meaningful way. Jokes about the fact that Ash’s full name is Ashley get repeated to death (which, listen, I get that these jokes are used to illustrate the point that the tellers of them are lamewads, but still joke redundancy to this extent is tiresome). And the Chicken Man’s plan, which is the initial plot-spark of the novel, might be a tad bogus. But then does anyone know who killed Owen Taylor in The Big Sleep? Does it matter? Because this book is genre writing par excellence.
To pursue a half-baked metaphor: genre writing is like a cupcake. We all generally know what to expect. The cupcake’s final shape and its basic ingredients are predetermined even before we’ve read the recipe—that’s how we know it’s a cupcake, and it’s also why Naturals’ vegan cupcakes are so frequently a failure. “The trick,” Ash says, “is you’ll never make a good vegan cupcake because all the structural stuff you need, like butter and eggs, is not vegan. Why try to make something into something it’s not?” The secret, then, for creating the perfect cupcake is to masterfully employ these basic ingredients, “the structural stuff,” as Ash puts it, while simultaneously adding in your own definitive twist with an extra dash of this-and-that, with a unique mixture of flavors, with the homemade frosting, and with the sprinkles for sure.
The comparative writing challenge then, for someone like Hart, is how to spice up the established elements of the crime genre into something lively and grand, into something that’s at once deliciously original while also being honest in its ambitions. Hart succeeds here not by subverting expectations—though, after all, what’s more stereotypical than a crime novel daring to “subvert genre expectations”—but by upholding and so clearly and thoroughly delighting in them. Which is to say, this a cupcake made by a man who loves cupcakes! And who sticks to the recipe, more or less. There’s that fine mixture of banter, action, and Hart’s signature comedic-noir tone.
All in all, City of Rose is a funny, enjoyable book that makes me eager to read more of Ash McKenna’s adventures. Except now I want an actual—not metaphorical—cupcake. But before we leave off, one last bit of wisdom from Ash: “The only books he has are by Ayn Rand. So I know for sure he’s a degenerate.” Which is to say, don’t be a degenerate, don’t only read Ayn Rand. Read everything else and read as much as you can.