It’s 1998, and David Malone is living in his home town, Rome, N.Y. Professionally, he inspects houses for potential buyers; romantically, he’s engaged to a medical student. But one evening she confesses to a fling with another man, whereupon Malone walks out and within hours is romancing law student Jana Fletcher. Alas, after he’s spent 10 blissful nights with Jana, someone kills her, and Malone finds himself being questioned by a detective who’d happily pin the crime on him.
Thus begins Harry Dolan’s third novel about David Malone, although the first two, the highly praised “Bad Things Happen” and “Very Bad Men,” took place a dozen years later, when Malone was calling himself David Loogan and working as a magazine editor in Ann Arbor. The essential fact about Malone/Loogan is that, whether he’s 26 or 38, living in New York or Michigan, he has a gift for attracting women and trouble.
Malone manages to convince the detective that he’s not the killer; soon Malone is conducting his own investigation. There’s no shortage of suspects. Jana was working with a law professor to prove the innocence of a schoolteacher who’s in prison for murdering his wife. Malone becomes suspicious of the law professor and the imprisoned man’s brother. He also distrusts two entirely worthless cousins who had shown an unhealthy interest in Jana. Jana’s landlady’s thuggish grandson is another suspect — and Malone also keeps an eye on the detective, who may be up to no good.
Malone’s first-person account of his investigation sometimes gives way to a third-person look at the killer, a psychopath who calls himself K. Thus, we learn: “He had killed four women in his life, but Jolene was the only one he regretted. Part of him wished she was still alive, because she was an innocent girl who’d died because she’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. And part of him wished she was still alive so he could kill her again.”
If that last line rings distant bells, you may be recalling the end of Flannery O’Connor’s great story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” when that Southern sociopath called the Misfit says of a troublesome old woman, “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
The elusive K is probably one of the characters we’ve met, but figuring out which one is tricky because Dolan has a talent for ingenious, serpentine plots. His story expands to include a woman who is kidnapped and held prisoner for an extended period, as happens all too often in real life these days. This ordeal leads to an amazing scene in which a revenge-seeking woman enters a trailer home and shoots a man dead. Then she looks into the bedroom and finds her victim’s wife naked and handcuffed to the bed.
“He chained you,” she says.
The handcuffed woman lowers her eyes. “It’s something he likes.”
“He cut you,” the intruder adds, seeing blood on the wife’s breast.
“He didn’t mean to. Sometimes he goes too far.”
In time, the wife urges her husband’s killer to leave. “I never saw you,” she promises. In this book, that’s justice enough for both women.
This is dark material, yet Dolan balances it with his portrayal of a world much like the one we know. Malone is a likable fellow, his romantic tribulations ring true, he quotes good poetry, and we cheer his determination to find Jana’s killer. This is a world in which people smoke weed, bum cigarettes and cheat on their spouses, a world in which popsicle sticks become important clues, and Malone recalls the boyhood pleasures of catching fireflies on summer evenings, even as the killer conspires to catch him.
Dolan is an inventive, offbeat writer who manages to provide an entertaining mystery and a scary look at psychopaths who do horrific things to people. His David Malone novels deserve the praise they’ve received. Most likely, we’ll keep learning more about the trouble-prone Mr. Malone for years to come.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE LAST DEAD GIRL
By Harry Dolan
Amy Einhorn/Putnam. 402 pp. $26.95