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by Keith McCarthy
Carroll & Graf, September 2003
256 pages
ISBN: 0786712228

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

One of the greatest discoveries that a seriously mystery-addicted reader can find is that magical book that knocks them over from the first word on the first page and continues to leave them breathless until the book comes to its conclusion, an event that is viewed with much regret. Such a book is A FEAST OF CARRION by Keith McCarthy.

This book is dark, complex and written with such an assured hand that surely Mr McCarthy is a seasoned professional. To find that this is his first book is a welcome surprise, as one can hope for a prodigious output of similarly excellent works in the future.

John Eisenmenger was formerly a forensic pathologist who is now serving as the head of the Museum of Pathology at a medical school in the UK. Although his actual responsibilities are interesting and professionally rewarding, the colleagues that he must work with could serve as specimens in the Museum of Deviant Individuals. The dean, his fellow professors, the head curator -- each is dysfunctional and unpleasant in one way or another.

All of their baser characteristics come out in full when a gruesome discovery is made in the museum. A young woman by the name of Nikki Exner is found drawn and quartered. Exner was a student at the medical school who was not above using her physical charms to get what she wanted, whether that be drugs, good grades or an academic prize.

The case is handled by an extremely ambitious detective inspector by the name of Beverly Wharton, who is not above manipulating evidence or people to achieve her own ends. She immediately settles upon a young man who was a source of Nikki's drugs and who had been her lover as the killer.

An incompetent pathologist by the name of Charles Sydenham prepares a flawed autopsy report, and the case is about to be closed. However, Eisenmenger knows that there's more to this death than the conclusions that are drawn by Wharton and the pathologist. He is asked to prepare a new autopsy report by a solicitor named Helena Flemming who has an ax to grind. A detective constable who has been victimized by Wharton also lends a hand in investigating the murder.

A FEAST OF CARRION succeeds on every level. The focus is on the forensic pathology of the murder victim and attempting to understand the symbolism of the murder. Although at times the descriptions are graphic, they are never titillating. At the same time, there is a multi-dimensional dance going in between the various characters. At times, one does not know who is leading, who is following and indeed, who is partners with whom. It's impossible to determine who the villain is, as so many of the characters have good motives for the killing. All the characters seem to be carrying around a lot of emotional baggage, but the way they are presented makes each of them intrinsically interesting, if not lovable.

McCarthy's prose is dense yet highly readable, with a complex plot that pulls the reader through the pages. McCarthy's expertise in writing about forensic pathology is due to the fact that he has been a pathologist since 1985 and lends the narrative a strong sense of authenticity.

Although this book was not perfect, having a few 'first book' type flaws, it gets an unqualified thumbs up from this reader. I can't wait until the second book in the series, THE SILENT SLEEP OF THE DYING, is released. McCarthy is going to occupy a place of honor on this collector's bookshelves.

Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, August 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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