A month before the stylish new mystery novel Bad Things Happen was published, there was Internet chatter about the first sentence: “The shovel has to meet certain requirements.” I feel the appropriate tingle there. It’s the kind of hook that draws in even the occasional mystery reader like me. And very soon after, the body count starts to climb; there might be eight or nine of them at the end—I lost track.
If a local reader needs any more incentive to pick up the book, those bodies are scattered all over Ann Arbor. Our tree-studded college town starts to look dangerous! And that’s kind of fun.
Ann Arborite Harry Dolan, a first-time novelist, has the landscape right. He does more than mention the right places—Palio, the Firefly Club, coffeehouses at Liberty and State. You could almost follow his directions to the little-known Marshall Park (one of my favorite bird-watching walks), where—yes!—that shovel gets used for the first time. Dolan also seems to have some of our attitudes down. His criminals are writers, or editors, or academics who once wanted to be writers, or real writers who aren’t very good at the social games that seem so important in the writing world. Their hope for their writing—even if not the income they derive from it—is another recognizable Ann Arbor trait.
All of these writers collect around Grey Streets, a journal that publishes crime writing. The formula for publishing a story in that journal is simple: “Plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die.” One of the lovely and wildly improbable turns in Bad Things Happen is that in twenty-first-century Ann Arbor, a whole group of people manage to make comfortable livings from a pulp journal and that they take the ambitions of publishing so seriously they would actually kill for a story line. It has the feel of something from the heyday of the great American noir detective novels. It is clearly part of the homage Harry Dolan pays to Chandler, Hammett, and the others who’ve influenced him.
More of that influence is felt in the clean, mostly unadorned prose that animates the book, and in the twists and turns of the plot that David Loogan, a mysterious and improbable “detective,” tries to unravel. Conveniently, Loogan also appears to be a naturally gifted editor. But in Bad Things Happen, editing, too, is an occupation where you put your life on the line—particularly in the darkly ambitious version of Ann Arbor that Harry Dolan has created.
Harry Dolan reads from his novel at Borders on Tuesday, July 28.