'Very Bad Men' a complex tale of a robbery and the killings it sets off

| Sunday, July 17, 2011

When he was a teenager, Harry Dolan had designs on becoming the J.R.R. Tolkien of science fiction. In college, he wrote "weird hybrids of mystery and fantasy." His first novel was a coming-of-age story wrapped around a romance with a crime plot thrown in for good measure. It totaled an unwieldy 850 pages; needless to say, it wasn't published.

Dolan finally found a formula that worked by simplifying his approach. His first published novel, "Bad Things Happen," was a straightforward crime novel with an atypical setting: Ann Arbor, Mich., a pleasant, collegiate town (University of Michigan) where Dolan lives.

"I just feel more comfortable setting a story here rather than a larger city," says Dolan, who also has lived in the college towns of Bowling Green, Ohio, and Chapel Hill, N.C.

In his new novel, "Very Bad Men," again set in Ann Arbor, the mystery is not about who is killing the parties involved in a bank robbery 17 years ago. Anthony Lark is committing the murders, but why• Lark seemingly has no connection to the bank robbery.

Enter David Loogan, the editor of Gray Streets, a mystery magazine based in Ann Arbor. He enters the story when a manuscript detailing the murders -- including information about the next victim -- is left outside his office. His partner, Elizabeth Waishkey, a detective with the Ann Arbor police, gives Loogan access to the murder investigation. Also involved are a reporter for a tabloid magazine, Lucy Navarro, and Cassie Spenser, a rising star in politics whose father was paralyzed in the bank robbery.

Dolan admits he's more interested in the aftereffects of a crime rather than its execution.

"As readers, a lot of people will approach a mystery novel where they want to guess in advance who the killer is," he says. "I just want to go where the writer takes me. ... If it's a good book, it carries you along, and you need to know how it ends. That's certainly the attitude I take as a writer. And that's what David Loogan does."

One of the themes of "Very Bad Men" is how the past keeps intruding on the present. The 17 years that have passed since the bank robbery have allowed at least one person to escape unpunished, and Loogan and Waishkey crisscross Michigan searching for clues that have been secreted away for almost two decades.

"The whole foundation of the book is about buried secrets and what people are willing to do keep them covered up," Dolan says.

If there's one idea in "Very Bad Men" that might be over the top, it's that Loogan makes a living editing a small, independent magazine devoted to mystery stories. Dolan, who has worked as a freelance editor for journals and think tanks, agrees that scenario might seem far-fetched. But, after he published his first book, Dolan became aware of Strand Magazine, a successful Michigan-based publication that has featured interviews with writers including Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton and P.D. James.

Of course, no one gets rich editing a mystery magazine, and Dolan plays on that idea in his work.

"The magazine (Gray Streets) has fallen on hard times, and the future is a little bit uncertain," Dolan says. "But the whole idea of setting a murder mystery in Ann Arbor is a bit unrealistic in itself. When I wrote my first book, I looked at the homicide statistics for the city of Ann Arbor, and it just doesn't happen. You might get one a year, or maybe two. It's nothing like you'd see in a big city, but fiction does require a suspension of belief, doesn't it?"

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Harry Dolan's novel about a man who sets out to kill the perpetrators of a bank robbery that took place 17 years ago is complex and multi-layered. The setting is Ann Arbor, Mich., a relatively quiet college town. The protagonist is a magazine editor. These are not prime ingredients, but Dolan magically mixes and stirs them into a sophisticated, rich story that marks the author as a rising star in the mystery genre.

• Rege Behe

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