Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review of Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan (Ebury Press, 2009)

David Loogan has moved to Ann Arbor to start a new life.  After writing a short story and submitting it to a local crime fiction magazine, Gray Streets, then re-writing it and resubmitting it twice, he is hired as an editor by its owner, Tom Kristoll.  Over the course of a summer, Loogan gets absorbed into Kristoll’s circle, and within a month or so he is sleeping with his wife.  By the end of the summer he is answering Kristoll’s call to bring a shovel to help dispose the body of a young man, killed in Kristoll’s study, and he’s agreeing to keep the death a secret.  However, a couple of weeks later, Kristoll is also dead, pushed out of a sixth storey window.  Elizabeth Waishkey, a single mother of a 15 year old daughter, is assigned to the case.  A loose bond forms between Waishkey and Loogan, but in very short order two more men are dead and Loogan is on the run, but determined to solve the crimes and clear his name.  Waishkey’s job is to solve the murders and bring Loogan in, but it soon becomes clear that Loogan is a man seemingly without a past.

Bad Things Happen, for the most part, is a fairly clever book that draws liberally from across the crime fiction cannon to use various mystery tropes to construct the plot.  The writing is workmanlike but very readable and there are some nice touches and humour.  And yet, whilst I enjoyed it, I wasn’t bowled over by the story.  On reflection I think there are two things that hinder Bad Things Happen from being a stellar book, which it’s easy to imagine it could have been.  First, I felt the book was all plot, with fairly weak character development; for me, the principle characters were either very thinly fleshed out or verging on caricatures.  I just never felt I got to really know any of them, with the possible exception of the cop’s daughter, who although she has a minor role had a roundness and believability to her.  Second, whilst Dolan has constructed a convoluted plot that doesn’t suffer from the ‘done-well, but done before’ syndrome, it does have three problems.  It feels too knowing, rather than being more subtle and letting the crime aficionados spot things for themselves.  Although all the multiple twists are meant to be surprises, none of them really are as its clear that there is going to be a twist every few pages, even if its not clear what they will be; the result is that one is never really left gasping with wonder.  And perhaps most importantly, certain parts of the plot really lacked credibility.  For example, I simply couldn’t buy that David Loogan covered up a murder for someone he barely knew given how his character is portrayed.  The credibility issue was stretched because of the need for an endless succession of plot devices.  If the story was going to be as clever as it aimed to be then these plot devices would, I think, have seemed more credible.  This all sounds like a lot of griping, which it undoubtedly is, born of a frustration that, although enjoyable, this could have been a really brilliant book.  Looking at other reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, a lot of people think it already is.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.


Anonymous said...

Rob - Thanks for this review. I agree with you that there were some places where suspension of disbelief got carried a bit far. I have to admit I prefer a more believable story where things fall out a bit more logically.

kathy d. said...

The story wasn't always believable but I read it differently than many may have. I assumed it wouldn't always be believable, but went on the ride that it offered, which I enjoyed immensely. I felt like I was riding a roller coaster, turns and twists and ups and down, unexpectedly.

And I laughed out loud many times, sometimes at the lines (especially about publishers) and sometimes at the preposterousness of the plot.

I liked it, friends liked it. It was different from the usual and lots of fun.

I suspended the rules and just went with it like a roller coaster, as I said above, and just enjoyed the ride.

Rob Kitchin said...

Kathy, maybe I wasn't in the right mood for it. I kind of realised that it wasn't meant to be believable, but it was I think trying to be so to a large extent - it wanted its cake and to eat it. I'm I great fan of comic crime capers, tart noir, etc, but there are no pretentions with them and its easier to go with the ride. They also tend to have much more developed characters. Perhaps I'm being overly harsh; I enjoyed it, but I didn't quite connect with it the way you did.