Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan

"This isn't a story in Gray Streets, Mr. Loogan."

"You keep telling me that. But more and more it's getting to look like one.... [He's] dead and I'm a suspect. If this were a story in
Gray Streets, I'd have to solve the crime on my own... and clear my name."

She closed her eyes. "David, this isn't a story in
Gray Streets."

"That's what you say."
— from Bad Things Happen

David Loogan is a man who wants no past. In fact, "David Loogan" is not his real name, only a convenient substitute. After he moves to Ann Arbor, he comes across a copy of Gray Streets magazine and submits a story — literally over the transom — twice. Editor Tom Kristoll notices the marked increase in quality of the revision and offers David a job as an editor.

Soon they become close friends. They even dig a grave together to bury the thief (or not) that Tom (or somebody) killed — hey, what are friends for? David also begins an affair with Tom's wife Laura that ends on the evening Tom is found defenestrated (self- or otherwise) and most definitely dead.

Enter detective Elizabeth Waishkey, investigating officer and mother of a teenage daughter. Elizabeth's job gets progressively more difficult as the body count increases — all employees of Gray Streets in one form or another — and her mysterious prime suspect (though he has her believing he didn't really do it) continually takes the investigation into his own hands ("just like in a story in Gray Streets").

It may seem like I'm repeating the phrase "like a story in Gray Streets" a lot, but it's nowhere near as many times as it's used in Harry Dolan's debut novel, Bad Things Happen. It's a kind of metafictional motif, used to remind the reader that you are reading a book, but that this book isn't going to be like other crime/mystery novels, as much as the characters might want it to be.

Dolan has several tricks up his sleeve, all of which make Bad Things Happen a continually surprising read. It compelled me through its unpredictable plot from the beginning, and I was never able to tell where it would end up. First, it seemed like a typical noir-style crime novel, but it soon became a mystery with multiple murders to solve.

For a book so steeped in genre, Bad Things Happen manages to be almost completely non-formulaic. (The author's fondness for Raymond Chandler is obvious through references, but I'm not enough of a Chandler buff to see any stylistic similarities.) Each page offers a new piece of information, and the direction of the plot is never telegraphed.

The protagonist's actions are realistically improvisatory — Dolan seems to truly be making this up as he goes along — but the level of detail suggests both a fertile imagination and months devoted to orchestration. (That is, assuming that Bad Things Happen is not semi-autobiographical: Harry Dolan and David Loogan share more than a few similarities.)

What it all comes down to is that Bad Things Happen is a terrifically auspicious debut that is going to be hard to follow. There is nothing cliche or predictable from the opening line all the way to the surprisingly complex solution (that you'll never guess). I'm already looking forward to seeing what Harry Dolan does next.

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