Bad Things Happen a riveting debut

Author Harry Dolan’s website doesn’t give his age, but his photo – with its weighty head, heavy beard, kind eyes and twisted smile – is not that of a wunderkind.  His bio lists both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, plus several years as an editor.  And all that experience with life and with words shows in his debut mystery, Bad Things Happen.

The set-up is this:  the protagonist, a quiet and literate man who is probably not named David Looger, but that’s the name he goes by, has a comfortable life as an editor with the mystery magazine Gray Streets.  He has made friends with the publisher and fallen into an affair with the publisher’s wife.  One day, he gets a phone call from the friend and ends up helping him bury a man in the woods.

This is just the first of many deaths – over time, several people associated with Gray Streets die, a blackmail plot is revealed, and many of the characters are shown to be flawed, at best, including Mr. Looger.  An equally strong and compellingly imperfect character is Detective Elizabeth Waishkey, who has both the brains and the heart to question the obvious and trust her own judgment.

And while the plot and the characters are engaging, I was struck by Dolan’s voice.  His writing style is clear and fine, perfect pace, and a nice use of detail:

Loogan had seen the room before, and in the moment when it was still dark he visualized it: at the far end, a desk with a high-backed chair.  Three arched windows behind the desk.  Bookshelves lining the walls, right and left.  Four upholstered chairs in the open space between the lines of shelves.  The chairs faced one another, two on either side, forming the corner of a perfect square.

The light came on.  Kristoll stood back.  The first thing Loogan saw was that one of the chairs had toppled over.  The second thing he saw was the body.

Dolan has a wonderful way of having Loogan simultaneously view life as life – what really happens – and as a Gray Streets story.  And while reality has a way of being pretty straight forward, it can sometimes be messy and twisted, especially once you’re not just examining who did what, but why.

A particular joy with Bad Things Happen is that all the characters are smart and well-spoken, even the guilty ones. The Washington Post review holds out little hope that the book will reach blockbuster status – too literate.  My disappointment:  Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen should have been nominated for Best First Novel by An American Author in the 2010 Edgars.  I actually looked to make sure it wasn’t eligible for 2011!

The good news is that he got a two-book deal from Putnam, so we can be looking for a second mystery.  Maybe soon; the authors in Bad Things Happen are compelled to produce every two years at least.  So spring 2011 at the latest.

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