four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
By: 
Harry Dolan
user_rating: 
0

A-Bad Things HappenHarry Dolan spent eight years as the editor of an academic journal before turning to fiction, and he draws on this rich experience to lampoon the literary world in his highly acclaimed debut novel. The profuse prepublication praise bestowed on Bad Things Happen heralds the emergence of a promising new writer.

The Story: Arriving in Ann Arbor, Michigan, mysterious stranger David Loogan soon begins working for Gray Streets, a literary crime fiction magazine. He soon agrees to help the magazine’s owner, Tom Kristoll, bury the body of a man Kristoll claims he killed in self-defense—partly out of guilt over the affair Loogan is carrying on with Kristoll’s beautiful wife. After Kristoll plummets to his own death from his office window and the body they’d buried together is discovered, Loogan becomes Detective Elizabeth Waishkey’s main suspect. But the writers and editors of Gray Streets keep turning up dead—and Loogan finds himself on the run, searching for answers of his own.
Putnam. 352 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780399155635

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] brilliant first novel. … I could go on for pages about the amazing amount of trust that Dolan generates from Page 1, letting us know that he won’t make a false move. But I don’t want to spoil your pleasure." Dick Adler

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Patrick Anderson

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Harry Dolan nails the twist—and just about everything else—in his debut novel. … One of Dolan’s influences is Raymond Chandler, and the novel is full of sly homages to noir." Shawna Seed

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Although the plot is fairly outlandish, the narrative comes with startling developments and nicely tricky reversals. There’s also something appealingly offbeat about the wry, dry tone of its academic humor, which has much to do with the self-important authors who figure in the hectic plot, either as murder suspects or as the victims of a killer who seems to be culling the Gray Streets contributors list." Marilyn Stasio

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The author has some impressive story twists and clever details, but they’re almost lost in the unnecessary subplots and tedious dialogue. Bad Things would be a better read with fewer characters and plot twists, which is ironic, as this is the same editorial criticism given to a manuscript that’s at the center of the story." Carolyn Lessard

Critical Summary

Compared to works by Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and Patricia Highsmith, Bad Things Happen rated as a "brilliant first novel" (Chicago Tribune) and "the best first novel [of the] year" (Washington Post) among most critics. They praised Dolan’s crisp, minimalist prose and well-developed, flesh-and-blood protagonists. Dolan’s intricate plot, full of surprising twists and turns, eschews showdowns and shootouts in favor of droll dialogue and a noirish, Chandleresque tone. Though the San Francisco Chronicle deplored the glut of subplots and secondary characters, most reviewers agreed that Dolan’s debut effort is stylish, sharp-edged, and suspenseful. "It’s probably too clever to be blockbuster material," lamented the Washington Post, but readers in search of a literate mystery are in for a treat.

Cited by the Critics

The Talented Mr. Ripley | Patricia Highsmith (1955): In this classic crime novel, suave psychopath Tom Ripley, a small-time con artist, is sent to Italy by the father of an old acquaintance to convince his friend to return home. Ripley quickly becomes enamored of his friend’s carefree, decadent lifestyle and resolves to take it for himself.