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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Harry Dolan's "Very Bad Men" is a Disappointing Follow-Up to the Excellent "Bad Things Happen".

Harry Dolan's first novel, Bad Things Happen, is great fun.  Very Bad Men is, by comparison, a great disappointment.  Here in a nutshell is the set-up for Very Bad Men: Anthony Lark has a list of men he urgently wants to kill.  All the men were involved in a failed bank robbery that took place 17 years ago.  Lark's actions may be connected to a Michigan State Representative named Callie Spenser who is running for the United States Senate. Spenser's father is a former sheriff who was paralyzed after being shot by one of those bank robbers.

While Lark's motives for murder are unclear, we do know that he suffers from headaches and a condition called synesthesia,which causes him to see written words as having color and movement.  We also know he likes to read mysteries (the written words in most mysteries are manageable for him), which leads to David Loogan, the editor of a mystery magazine called Gray Streets.  Loogan receives a manuscript in which someone confesses to murdering a man named Harry Kormoran and provides the next name on his hit list.  It just so happens that police are investigating the murder of a man named Harry Kormoran.  Thus, the game is on.      

The game, however, doesn't prove to be very exciting.  A key problem with Very Bad Men, in my view, is that it doesn't create and retain the same cool, noir ambiance that made Bad Things Happen such a neat book.  Perhaps one reason for this change in ambiance is that Loogan is really more of a second banana in Very Bad Men.  Although he does engage in various bits of freelance investigating that get him into trouble, he is also frequently riding the coattails of his girlfriend, Ann Arbor Police Detective Elizabeth Waishkey.

Indeed, Waishkey and her colleagues who are investigating the murders seem to receive significant attention in this book.  While they are interesting characters, bringing them further into the forefront of the plot makes the book much more ordinary.

Perhaps another reason for the change in ambiance between books is that in Bad Things Happen,  Loogan was an unknown, potentially dangerous man.  Mr. Dolan so completely resolved many of the mysteries surrounding Loogan in his first book that there is a loss of tension and suspense surrounding the character. For me, the transition of Loogan into just a nice guy who likes to help solve crimes is not much fun.  There is also less fun in following the numerous plot twists and turns in Very Bad Men, a technique that had made Bad Things Happen so fresh and gripping to read.  The numerous plot twists become tiring in Very Bad Men when not supported by the old mysteries surrounding Loogan and the noir atmosphere.

Although I found Very Bad Men to rate only 3 points on a 5-point scale, I'm not ready to give up author Harry Dolan.  Bad Things Happen was very enjoyable and quickly reproducing that level of quality is likely challenging.  I'll keep reading Mr. Dolan's work to see what he does next.      

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