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by Harry Dolan
Putnam, July 2009
338 pages
ISBN: 0399155635

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's hard to put your finger on what makes this book work. It is an understated spoof of the genre, with allusions that will please those in the know. It's a bit of a country house mystery, only instead of a country house, all of the characters are involved in the Ann Arbor crime fiction community. Though arch, it has the lean dialogue, cool hero, and dark hues of a traditional hardboiled thriller. This bouillabaisse of incompatible ingredients makes it sound like a mess, but it isn't. It's a polished debut with enough plot for a year's worth of mystery magazine issues, its face straight, and its tongue firmly in cheek.

Harry Loogan, the enigmatic hero who is living temporarily in Ann Arbor with no possessions and no strings attached, submits a story to Gray Streets, a mystery magazine. He decides to give it another polish and (literally) tosses it over the transom again. The third time, the publisher meets him at the door, saying he wants take him on as an editor. So Loogan settles into work among the incestuous mystery community, keeping a wary distance. That distance gets tricky when the publisher (who has become a friend) asks him for help. He's got a dead body on his hands and needs help getting rid of it.

Nothing, of course, is as it seems. The body isn't who Loogan thinks, for starters, and the circumstances of his death are not what they seem. Before long, the publisher is found dead below his office window, an apparent suicide that turns out actually to be a murder. The police investigation, led by the cool and stylish Elizabeth Waishkey, runs parallel to Loogan's unauthorized sleuthing. Bodies begin to pile up. And for every explanation, the writers involved with Gray Streets can come up with endless plausible alternatives. While Elizabeth often reminds Loogan that they aren't in a story in Gray Streets, that's exactly where they are.

A blurb on the back of the book calls it "a tense read that keeps you tightly in its grip" and another cites "sophisticated characterizations." Actually, neither applies. The characters (with the exception of Loogan and Elizabeth) are barely sketched-in types, and if you're in the grip of anything it's probably laughter. Bodies fall right and left, the plot turns and twists, but it's essentially a puzzle mystery, the kind that Chandler complained about in "The Simple Art of Murder," full of contrivances, not attempting to depict sordid reality. But in spite of those contrivances, there are sly references to Chandler, and the narration is laconic and wry.

Unlikely though it sounds, BAD THINGS HAPPEN is sly good fun.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, August 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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