Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Very Bad Men Stumbles Over Its Own Story

Ah, popular thrillers! Can you think of better books to kick back with on the beach? True, over the years so-called beach reads have earned a reputation as the nadir of genre fiction, and that's not entirely unwarranted. With broad characterizations, sensational plots, visceral violence, and salacious sex, they don't so much camp on the lowest common denominator as erect a McMansion and invite you to the housewarming party. But beach reads have one thing going for them: They always seek to entertain, which is something one critic called the first rule of good writing. Such is the case with Harry Dolan's straightforwardly named Very Bad Men. This sequel to his debut novel Bad Things Happen contains more complexity than you might expect.

David Loogan has almost become respectable. As the new editor of Gray Streets (a short-fiction mystery magazine clinging to life in the age of the novel) and husband in all but name to Ann Arbor police detective Elizabeth Waishkey, he has changed from an enigmatic wanderer to a part of the community. Then one day an odd manuscript turns up at his office. It isn't strange because it dishes up details about multiple murders; that sort of stuff is Loogan's stock in trade nowadays. No, what makes it weird is that the story contains no adverbs, mentions details that fit perfectly with a recent pair of killings in the state, affirms the author's intention to strike again -- and came not in the mail, but deposited on his doorstep. Soon Loogan finds himself tracking a synthesia-stricken serial killer named Anthony Lark who's tied to a fast-rising political star, a decades-old bank robbery, and the posse of very bad men who tried to pull it off.

Dolan gets the craft of the thriller, so much so that it's sometimes hard to believe that Very Bad Men is only his second novel. He strings together scenes taut with tension and rarely fails to end a chapter with a cliffhanger. Yet he also subverts a number of genre-related expectations. The Senate candidate proves neither a morally conflicted white knight nor a wolf in sheep's clothing. When Loogan asks the candidate why she's running, she states, "Someone's going to be the next senator from Michigan. I think I could do a passable job. There are other people who could do it -- but they wouldn't do better than I would, and some of them would do much worse." An interesting perspective on politics. Something similar could be said about the portrayal of the serial killer, who proves almost sympathetic when not bludgeoning or strangling people and who plays a surprisingly small part in the overarching plot. In fact, the plot itself is the only real problem point in Very Bad Men. "The story was a tangled one, and as I sat watching ... I tried to work through it myself," Loogan muses near the finale. "If I'd had a notebook like Lark, I might have written it down." I suspect most will find said notebook necessary to sort the proceedings into a semblance of order. What a shame an otherwise entertaining book stumbles over its own story.

(Picture: CC 2007 by david boudjenah)

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