By Harry Dolan
G.P. Putnam’s Sons ($24.95, 338 pp.)
Genre fiction can be a literary kiss of death, but it can also be a commercial gold mine. Sometimes it yields both literary respect AND money.
The three most popular American genres have been and continue to be the Western, the Romance, and the Mystery. The literary Western canon loosely includes the likes of Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard, and Loren Estleman. The Romance, however, has spawned no literary writers at all (those who can write this sort of thing with any style shun the label replacing it with today’s “chick-lit” label). Ah, but the Mystery niche includes literary luminaries far too numerous to name. It is to American literature what the Blues is to American music. Everyone has to take a crack at it. Most recently, even literary heavyweights Denis Johnson and Thomas Pynchon have published short noir books.
Now along comes Harry Dolan, a freelance editor with a master’s degree in philosophy, to deliver a first novel that bundles all the branches of the mystery tree into one package. “Bad Things Happen” is part thriller, part noir detective, part “cozy,” part satire, and, like the best of the genre, a damn fine novel of character and plot.
Bad things do indeed happen in Dolan’s novel, most of them murders unfolding relentlessly; just as it appears one is solved, another body shows up. The protagonist (known simply as “the man who calls himself David Loogan”) just appears in Ann Arbor where he rents the furnished home of a professor on sabbatical in Germany.
Like all good mysteries, the novel opens with a portentous omen: “The shovel has to meet certain requirements.” Shovels are important in this mystery.
Loogan is a loner with a murky past. He enjoys his whiskey and, like more than one noir detective, pushes his women away even as they take a more prominent role in his life. Loogan finds himself filling time by writing a mystery story and submitting it to the elite local fiction magazine “Gray Streets” …then rewriting it twice and resubmitting it with the improvements. Suddenly he is an editor at the magazine and closely attached to the founder and publisher…and his wife.
Dolan writes with the descriptive economy of Hemingway but doesn’t shy from the convoluted plot intricacies of Agatha Christie or the satire of Evelyn Waugh. The plot centers on the contributors to “Gray Streets” who all become either suspects or victims as the bodies pile up. The publisher goes early, whacked in the head (by “The Collected Works of Shakespeare” perhaps) and shoved out a sixth story window. He was an aspiring author who started the magazine to publish his own stuff (now, doesn’t that sound familiar) but realized, “I have enough judgment to know [my stories] don’t belong there. Do you know what that makes me? An editor. Nobody sets out to be an editor, but here we are…Anyone can be an editor. You don’t have to go to school for it. It’s something that happens to you, like falling down a well.” When asked to describe the “theme” of his magazine, he summarizes: “Plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die.” And so, in Dolan’s world, they do.
Loogan, the editor (one of the magazine’s writers explains that a “loogan” is a Chandler slang term for a gunman), turns amateur detective. He joins Ann Arbor police detective and single mom Elizabeth Waishkey (Dolan goes beyond the phone book to choose character names, many of which have literary antecedents) to find the killer of his friend the publisher.
As the plot complicates when “suicides” become “murders” and interns, editors, ghost writers, and graduate students become victims and suspects, the relationship between the taciturn Loogan and the tenacious Waishkey anchors the story. Even her teenaged daughter falls for Loogan “He’s an editor. He knows how to juggle. It’s not like he’s dangerous or anything,” she remarks.
Although Dolan has great fun with the mystery genre, with editors and writers, and even with the game of Clue, he can also write his way to the telling descriptions which transcend the cliché and formula. Like Chandler, he is particularly good with women.
“The woman had the figure of a starlet, the legs of a showgirl. She had a smooth high forehead and long auburn tresses. She had a nose that was slightly too prominent – a nose that a plastic surgeon might have been tempted to fix, though he would regret it afterward.” It’s the plastic surgeon’s regret that really shows the nose.
Just when it seems that Robert Parker or Michael Connelly have wrung the last drop of life out of the mystery genre, someone like Harry Dolan comes along to shake it back alive again.
Mystery protagonists come in all flavors, but David Loogan may be the first editor to walk the mean streets. This provides a great opportunity for a clever and well-read mystery fan like Dolan to have his way with writers, publishers, and agents on the way to unraveling a first rate mystery. Bad things happen, but sometimes they can cause good things to happen too –– like a first novel that portends a great future for Dolan.