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Writers like to write about writers. Sometimes when that happens, however, the work reads as if they're writing for writers. Considering the resounding "write that which you know" mantra, it's hard to blame them. But when the work doesn't cross over, and most fails for some reason or other, it's likely because it's overworked in a "do you see what I just did there?" way. One wants to be clever, but not too much.
Bad Things Happen is a murder novel. The murders, unsolved, surround a small mystery magazine in Ann Arbor, Grey Streets. Like the victims, the suspects are a gang of loosely affiliated and sustainably motivated writers and editors. Our main concern is one David Loogan, a mysterious man with a dark past, an editor's eye, and a propensity for juggling. His main concern: Elizabeth Waishkey, a single mother detective. These two tango around an entertaining ensemble of characters that Dolan weaves in and out of the story. Lies are told, alibis juggled, crossings doubled — bad things happen.
Author Harry Dolan knows writers, I'm sure. But I'm confident his circle of literary aesthetes in his hometown of Ann Arbor, and elsewhere, get as much enjoyment out of this tightly enacted crime caper as, say, a daytime fish-thrower at the Seattle Market. It's gripping, but not epically so. The narrative is tidy and the characters amusing.
The plot stretches, but not too far. For his first foray into novel-writing, Dolan kills.
From Chapter 1
The shovel has to meet certain requirements. A pointed blade. A short handle, to make it maneuverable in a confined space. He finds what he needs in the gardening section of a vast department store ...
The checkout lanes are crowded. He chooses a line and the fluorescent lights flicker overhead as he considers how he's going to pay. His wallet holds a credit card in the name of David Loogan. It's not the name he was born with, but it's what he calls himself now. He's not going to use the credit card ...
The line moves and he thinks he'll get out quick and clean, but he's wrong. The cashier wants to talk.
"I think I've seen you before," she says to him.
"I doubt it."
She's tall, broad in the hips, attractive, though the stark light accentuates the lines under her eyes and around her mouth.
"You look familiar," she says.
The man who calls himself David Loogan doesn't want to be familiar. He wants to be nondescript. Unmemorable ...
He offers her a lukewarm smile. "That must be it ..."
"You must be a gardener," she says.
He ought to agree and leave it at that, but he gets flustered. He starts to say, "I'm an editor," but stops himself. The truth won't do. He goes with the first lie that comes into his mind.
"I'm a juggler," he says.
It's a mistake.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.