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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan

Berkley Trade, 352 pages, $15, c2009

There must be a word for it but I just can’t think what it is: when writers write about writers, when movie makers make movies about movie makers, when journalists journal about journalists, when the media discusses the media. Self-what? It shouldn’t be a benign term, like self-reflection. It shouldn’t be harsh, on the other hand, like self-aggrandizement.


Harry Dolan, a former editor, has written a book about an editor. Dolan’s crime fiction is about an editor who works with crime fiction. It’s like a halving of the axiom that a writer must write what he knows. That most popularly means that a writer, who theoretically enjoys writing, writes about something other than writing that he or she knows. In Dolan’s case, he has written a quirky, attractive, winking look at the business of crime fiction.

I could hear the sounds of noir writer David Goodis as I read the first few pages. The focus of attention is the enigmatic David Loogan. Dolan almost immediately declares that Loogan is not his real name. It is not apparent what Loogan’s thoughts are, why he acts the way he does, and what his deal is. He’s the enigma in the puzzle, the wheel within a wheel. Is he the good guy or the bad? Why is it so important to know which? Here’s either a hint or an obfuscation: Loogan begins the story by buying a shovel with which to bury a murder victim.

Whoever Loogan really is, right now he is an editor for a crime fiction magazine. The magazine publishes short stories by both unknowns and famous people. The famous people are really famous and some of them help the editor, Tom Kristoll, with the running of the magazine, Gray Streets. Tom’s wife, Laura, is a professor of literature, and he hires interns — mostly Laura’s students — to help at the magazine.

It’s not clear whether Loogan was a writer in his former life, but he tries his hand at a crime short story, and soon he is working for the publication as an editor. Soon, too, there are three dead people, and Loogan is a suspect. Chasing him is Ann Arbor, Michigan, police detective Elizabeth Waishkey, who seems more beguiled by Loogan at the start than seems wise. Waishkey, fortunately, proves to have a logical brain and a dry sense of humor, and it was fun to watch her operate.

Dolan is obviously a big fan of crime fiction. He quotes Chandler, winks at real famous authors with his fictional famous authors, and gives a high-five to noir fiction. As Waishkey often says to Loogan, “You think you’re in a story in Gray Streets.” Wouldn’t it have been ironically fine if Dolan had titled his book, Grey Streets? No, maybe that’s overkill, and killing is best left to murderers.

Dolan gets the award for best selection of odd character surnames: Loogan, Waishkey, Kristoll, Hideaway, Shellcross, Hifflyn, Tully, Shan, Beccanti.

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