Forensic pathologist John Eisenmenger had left the world of criminal investigation, traumatised by the death of a child, weighed down by the atrocity and abuse he encounters on the mortuary dissecting table. He sought solace in the world of academe, running a museum of medical samples for a university. But savage death finds him once more when a female student is slaughtered and left on ostentatious display on the premises.
At first, Eisenmenger himself is a suspect – then his skills in interpreting the story that the dead body can tell become invaluable to the attractive lawyer on the defence team. Their interpretation of events puts them at odds with the establishment in general and one promotion hungry CID officer in particular. The police detective is willing to do almost anything – sleep with anyone, implicate anyone, fabricate anything – to close her cases and scramble further up the career ladder. Eisenmenger has his hands full dealing with her, never mind the murderer. And then it becomes obvious that the dismembered victim was no Snow White herself…
The detail of pathological description is brilliantly conveyed, not in sterile lab-speak but with a passionate humanity that makes it all the more convincingly gruesome. The medical and procedural insights are convincing and substantial – and it’s a pleasure to be challenged by some unusual technical and creative vocabulary. For some readers, the author’s magnificently embellished and scientifically descriptive writing style will feel too much like hard work, but Keith McCarthy’s wickedly perceptive pen portraits of his characters are definitely worth putting in a little intellectual effort. (It might help if you have an interest in the medical sciences or are familiar with some of the technical terms).
The author spares no blushes among the extensive cast of suspects (from double-barrelled buffoons to dope-dealing street scum) and the mixed crew of police officers (incompetent or corrupt, take your pick). All are skewered by his detailed descriptions which expose weakness and wilfulness with adept, unblinking honesty. McCarthy has a few favourite words which are maybe over-used (‘lacuna’ being the most notable), but the quality and maturity of the overall writing makes these instances easy to overlook. This book was obviously written a while ago and, indeed, it has a traditional, ‘English mystery’ atmosphere about it. At times this sits strangely alongside the graphic violence and explicit ‘adult’ encounters – but I enjoyed the overall result.
As well as a convoluted whodunit, ‘Carrion’ also examines the somewhat slimy side of life on the faculty of a medical university – the scheming rivalries, the manipulation of vulnerable young students, the sordid sex lives of almost everyone involved. On deeper levels, McCarthy deftly opens up even more disturbing cans of worms; the debilitating onset of obsessive compulsive disorder and how it can dominate lives, or the fragility of the human psyche when subjected to the stresses at the end of a relationship. He examines some deeply disturbing subjects and produces more than one jaw-dropping moment of emotional impact.
As a mystery, the resolution of the plot is so complex that it challenges credibility – but as a densely engaging novel, ‘Carrion’ is immensely satisfying. If you enjoy the nuanced density of Scandi crime, where everyday banality can be so magnificently contrasted with graphic violence, then this may well appeal to your reading tastes too. it’s also the first in a series, so if you’re converted to the cause then there are more to read immediately.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
A Feast Of Carrion by Keith McCarthy is available as an ebook or paperback