Harry Dolan makes good with his first novel, "Bad Things Happen"
Like many writers, Harry Dolan decided the right place for his first novel — his very long, 850-page novel — was his desk drawer. He had higher hopes for Novel No. 2, a murder mystery set right here where he lives, in Ann Arbor — admittedly more a “Best Places to Live” sort of town than a Murder U.S.A. capital. He shopped the book around to the usual suspects without, alas, luring a single literary agent, though a few asked for the full manuscript.
His luck changed in 2007 when Dolan entered the whodunit, “Bad Things Happen,” in Amazon.com’s first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Against the odds, good things happened: Among 5,000 entries, his ascended through various rounds in early 2008 to the No. 3 spot. Voting to pick the first-prize winner from the Top 10 list compiled by the editor-judges, online readers chose a competitor, “Fresh Kills” by Bill Loehfelm.
But Dolan won, too. He scored an agent and a publisher, Amy Einhorn books/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which offered him a two-book deal. “Bad Things Happen,” featured in the New York Times last week, came out Thursday; Dolan reads from it 7 p.m. Tuesday at Borders on Liberty Street — a nice touch since the store, like many Ann Arbor locations, figures in his story.
A second novel — a sequel to “Bad Things Happen”; the first novel is still in the drawer — is in the works for next summer.Dolan, 43, moved to Ann Arbor 10 years ago from Ohio, where he worked as an editor of a scholarly journal, “Social Philosophy and Policy,” at a think tank at Bowling Green State University.
Dolan, who holds degrees in philosophy and studied fiction writing at Colgate with novelist Frederick Busch, felt he had become an accidental editor — not unlike some of the characters in his own novel, characters, who, however, suddenly find themselves living the noir stuff they create for an Ann Arbor-based mystery magazine, “Gray Streets,” with offices conveniently located high enough up, in a Main Street building, for a death by defenestration.
“I wanted to be a writer as a teen-ager,” Dolan said in a phone call last week from the home he shares here with partner Linda Randolph, a computer tech specialist at the University of Michigan. “I got sidetracked and took a different path, but that’s the way I’ve thought about myself. So I decided to leave my full-time job and devote myself to writing. I wanted a change of scene and I ended up here.”
Drawing on his own experience and his love of the mystery genre, Dolan put books, writing (and editing) at the center of the plot, even creating a pivotal character with a vast unpublished novel to his credit. “His is even longer than mine,” he said.
The literary thriller’s bookish slant is fitting enough for a university town where, as Dolan observes in “Bad Things Happen,” “if you order a mocha latte, it gets handed to you by someone who’s read ‘Hamlet.’”
Of course, that person could also be a killer, as Dolan’s novel, negotiating as many neat and unexpected twists as a Mediterranean corniche road — or Huron River Drive — makes clear. The novel’s hero, David Loogan, may think he’ll lead a quiet life in the ur-college town to which he’s relocated to escape a dark past, but when he finds himself an accidental editor at “Gray Streets,” well, bad things happen, and the bodies — one of which the magazine’s founder, Tom Kristoll, asks him to help bury in the novel’s taut opening — begin to pile up.
Kristoll is soon dead, too, and Loogan realizes he has no idea who it is he actually buried or why. Loogan may be on the growing hit list, too, or he may be just one more suspect for the lovely, raven-haired Ann Arbor Police detective Elizabeth Waishkey to trail.
Waishkey and her smart, funny teen-age daughter, Sarah, play a big part in the novel, and reappear in the sequel, which, however, has nothing to do with writing or editing.
“I wanted to go off in another direction, not repeat this book,” Dolan said.
But in both, readers will find a familiar, though fictionalized, Ann Arbor, with university building in their correct places and streets like Main and State, Carpenter and Oak Valley Drive setting the grid. There are nods to Ypsilanti and Saline, too.
“The actual writing took about 16 months, but I had been thinking about it for months before I started,” Dolan said. “I wrote a lot from memory, and I altered details to suit my purposes. For example, Marshall Park, where Loogan buries the body; I remember being there years ago, and I knew what I needed to describe, but it may not be accurate at all.”
Hardly accurate, he admits, is the city’s murder rate.
“I looked once,” said Dolan, anticipating an interviewer’s question, “and it was 2 or 3 a year. I kill off eight or nine people in three weeks.”
Harry Dolan reads from "Bad Things Happen" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Borders downtown, 612 E. Liberty St.
Susan Isaacs Nisbett is a free-lance writer who primarily covers classical music and dance for AnnArbor.com