By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 3, 2009
BAD THINGS HAPPEN
By Harry Dolan
Amy Einhorn/Putnam. 338 pp. $24.95
Harry Dolan's droll and delightful first novel opens with a simple, ominous sentence: "The shovel has to meet certain requirements." This suggests the shovel in question may be intended for other than routine gardening chores. It suggests that, well, bad things may happen, which they soon do, in profusion. We learn that a man who calls himself David Loogan is in a store buying the shovel, rather furtively, and that he is an editor for a crime magazine called Gray Streets in Ann Arbor, Mich. We learn that he has bought the shovel because his boss, Tom Kristoll, the owner of the magazine, wants him to help bury a body. That's the first bad thing that happens.
Loogan likes Kristoll and feels guilty about having an affair with Kristoll's wife, Laura. So Loogan accepts his friend's story that he killed the man in his study in self-defense, and that it would cause too much of a fuss to call the police. They bury the man, whom Kristoll says is an ex-convict turned crime writer and extortionist. That, of course, is not remotely true.
For much of the book we don't know much about Loogan, except that he's 38, attractive to women and knows how to juggle. We get to know better the circle of writers and editors who are drawn to Gray Streets, odd characters with odd names like Nathan Hideaway, Rex Chatterjee, Bridget Shellcross, Casimir Hifflyn and Valerie Calnero. Unfortunately, as we get to know these people, they start experiencing death by murder. Tom Kristoll, the publisher, is only the next to go.
"Bad Things Happen" works perfectly well as a straight murder mystery, but it isn't pure realism; there's an air of make-believe here, of fun, as those offbeat names suggest. Even as Dolan enmeshes us in his intricate crime story, he's playing with the foibles of writers and giving us a witty sendup of the crime genre itself. Take, for example, the time-honored scene when the hero is bound and helpless in the grasp of a killer who vows to kill him but, fortunately, keeps talking instead of pulling the trigger. That happens to Loogan and a female cop he's joined up with -- twice in one night.
As befits a novel about writers, "Bad Things Happen" contains a good many literary in-jokes. Two of the names Loogan uses, for example, are borrowed from obscure characters in Raymond Chandler works. And there's the "Hamlet" joke. When someone kills an editor, after banging him on the head with a thick volume of Shakespeare's plays, and wants to make the death look like suicide, he leaves "Hamlet" open to "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane," Horatio's lament after Hamlet's death, when Horatio wants to kill himself. That "suicide note" is amusing enough, but the larger joke is that the body count in this novel is rapidly moving beyond that of the celebrated last-act massacre in "Hamlet."
The novel is ingeniously put together. We keep thinking we've spotted the killer, and we keep being wrong. If I say that the novel is as well plotted as Agatha Christie at her best, I don't mean to make it sound old-fashioned; it's not. Even more than Christie, this novel reminded me of Patricia Highsmith. When one character is fatally banged in the head by a bottle of Scotch ("Glenfiddich, nearly full"), I take that as tribute to the scene in "Ripley Under Ground" when a bottle of Margaux wine does the deed. Dolan clearly has the Ripley parallel in mind, because another character keeps referring to "the remarkable Mr. Loogan," with its echo of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and because there are times when we wonder if Loogan, like Tom Ripley, may not be such a fine fellow after all.
There's some lovely writing here. This, of a teenager: "She slept like a girl in a painting, on her side with her hands-palm-to-palm beneath her cheek." Or this, when Loogan recalls a movie date with a beautiful young woman: "What I remember is sitting close to her in the dark and waiting for something bright to come on the screen so I could turn and look at her face." There's gentle satire of crime writers: "She has a mystery series about an art dealer who solves crimes with the help of her golden retriever." Not that the satire is always gentle; most writers in this novel are given to envy, duplicity and plagiarism, and have homicidal instincts to rival Tony Soprano's gang.
Dolan holds a master's degree in philosophy and spent eight years as the editor of an academic journal before turning to fiction. His novel has won lavish pre-publication praise, but it's probably too clever to be blockbuster material. It's witty, sophisticated, suspenseful and endless fun -- a novel to be savored by people who know and love good crime fiction, and the best first novel I've read this year.
Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.