Aug. 17 2009 12:00 AM

Debut author finds support in online writing contest


When author Harry Dolan decided to take writing seriously, he quit his fulltime job as editor of “Social Philosophy and Policy,” an academic journal at Bowling Green State University, and he began looking for a place to relocate.

“I wanted a change of scenery, and Ann Arbor seemed to be a natural place to live,” Dolan said.

It’s fitting, then, that his first book, “Bad Things Happen,” is set in Ann Arbor and is a paean to the city’s rich literary scene.

“Bad Things Happen,” a novel about a series of murders in Ann Arbor that revolve around a literary crime magazine, draws heavily from Dolan’s love of the early pulp novels he read as a boy and in college. His favorites include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Lawrence Block, all known for their noir-ish approach to writing.

In his first book, Dolan skillfully pulls together the literary worlds of academia and publishing with all their nuances. His success writing on these subjects most likely comes from his past experience editing an academic journal and starting a campus literary journal as an undergraduate at Colgate University, publishing science fiction and fantasy.

Dolan’s protagonist, David Loogan, editor of “Gray Streets,” is forced into the role of amateur detective when dead bodies start surfacing, including his publisher’s. Loogan is a man with a past, which is slowly revealed as the mystery unfolds.

There are a series of switchbacks and an ever-widening number of culprits, as the body-count escalates. Local police Detective Elizabeth Waishkey adds some heat to the plot. It’s clear Waishkey and Loogan are attracted to each other, which further complicates the investigation, especially since Waishkey hasn’t ruled out the mysterious editor as the killer. This is one spider web of a plot, but the potential for romance helps soften the edges of the murder mystery.

It’s not that Dolan has written himself into the story, but he has brought several similarities between himself and the characters into play. One of the academic types in his book has a long manuscript he has been working on forever. Dolan himself has been sitting on his first book, which exceeds 850 pages. He said his first novel was much too long. “It probably won’t be published,” he said.

His second attempt, “Bad Things Happen,” might still be waiting in the wings if not for a very good thing that happenned. Dolan was one of those gutsy writers who took a chance and entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in 2007. Entrants were asked to post a selection from their book and allow Amazon. com users to vote for their favorites. It was an incredible long shot, but Dolan finished third out of 5,000 entries.

Third was good enough, since it landed him an agent and a two-book deal. The deadline for his second Loogan mystery is looming, and Dolan has kept it set in Ann Arbor. Readers of his first book will recognize numerous Ann Arbor locations, including Angel Hall (where real writers roost), Main Street and the Firefly Club, a local jazz club. Dolan’s second book will feature a bigger dose of Waishkey, along with her hip teenage daughter — a minor star in the first book.

Dolan said when he started “Bad Things Happen,” he knew the three major char acters, but the others developed as he went along, especially Waishkey and her daughter. He said the narrative comes slow, but “writing dialogue comes easy.” “I cruise along with dialogue,” he said.

That’s likely from reading all those tough-guy authors whose trademark was dialogue.

In addition to the gods of mystery, it’s easy to see where Dolan has paid tribute to his favorite contemporary writers — Lee Child, Jeffrey Deaver and Michael Connelly — who exult in loners, twisting plots and dark antagonists, all part of Dolan’s style.

“Basically, I wrote the kind of thing I like to read,” Dolan said.

Harry Dolan

of “Bad Things Happen” 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5 Schuler Books &
Music, Meridian Mall, Okemos FREE (517) 349-8840 www.schulerbooks.com