By Gary Kriss
Harry Dolan hasn’t killed anybody in well over two years.
Now he’s about to make up for lost time.
“I’ve been waiting quite a while for this, so in that sense it’s a relief,” Dolan says of what’s about to occur, which, he divulges, begins with the murder of a beautiful young law student. But there’ll be more deaths to come, all methodically planned by Dolan over the course of eighteen months.
The one saving grace? Dolan’s mayhem will be confined to the four-hundred-sixteen pages of his new novel, THE LAST DEAD GIRL (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam), which officially hits the shelves on January 9.
And while he can tranquilly create the most heinous of crimes on paper, Dolan isn’t quite as tranquil as he awaits publication day. “You always worry about how a book will do, how it’ll be received,” he says.
Like BAD THINGS HAPPEN and VERY BAD MEN—his two previous, critically-acclaimed novels—THE LAST DEAD GIRL involves David Loogan, the Gray Streets mystery magazine editor cum sleuth, endowed with, among other traits, Dolan’s own sarcastic sense of humor. However, where the other two books were sequential, this one is a prequel and takes place not in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Dolan’s city of residence, but in upstate Rome, New York, where he grew up.
“At first I thought this new book would follow the first two chronologically,” Dolan explains. “The victim, Jana Fletcher, would be a law student at the University of Michigan, and she would sign on as an intern at Gray Streets, which would be how David Loogan would get drawn into the story. But as I developed the story it became clear to me that it would work better if the main character were romantically involved with the victim. It would raise the stakes and give him more of a motive to track down her killer. That’s when I realized that I could set the story in David’s past. When I did that, everything became easier. It also allowed me to put him in conflict with the detective investigating the case, and more conflict is always a good thing. The dynamic between David and the detective, Frank Moretti, became central to the plot—and was fun to write.”
Fun or not, it still presented some writing challenges for Dolan. “David Loogan is in his late thirties in BAD THINGS HAPPEN and VERY BAD MEN; he’s twenty-six in THE LAST DEAD GIRL. So the challenge was to make him recognizably the same character, but with less experience. He’s less guarded in this book, less of a loner, maybe less cynical, but he’s the same person, with the same moral code and the same sense of loyalty. And he has the same dry sense of humor.”
Dolan added, “the drawback of setting the story in the past is that key characters from the first two books—especially Detective Elizabeth Waishkey and her daughter, Sarah—are missing from this story. I know some readers will miss them.” But readers need not fear because Dolan “plan[s] to bring them back eventually in future books.” As compensation, Dolan says that “in this book, readers will be introduced to a set of characters that had a big impact on David’s early life, including Frank Moretti, Sophie Emerson—David’s onetime fiancé—and Jana herself.”
In the end, Dolan states that THE LAST DEAD GIRL, which took him eight months to complete, is “written so that it can stand on its own.” He notes that “you can enjoy it without knowing anything about David Loogan or having read my other books,” while “on the other hand, people who have read the first two books in the series will get to see David in a new light and will learn things about him that they didn’t know.”
Those facets are revealed as Logan, Jana’s lover for an all-too-brief period of time, delves into her past to find her killer. Dolan calls Jana’s backstory “the key to the plot.”
“Jana’s death is the central mystery of the book,” he says, “and I wound up telling her story in far more detail than I had originally planned. I thought I would show only glimpses of her past, but I wound up fleshing it out a lot, so that it has a real arc. You learn more about Jana in this book than you might learn about the victim in a typical mystery novel. When I started writing the book, I had a pretty good grasp of the major characters and the roles that they would play. I knew that David would play the amateur detective, as usual, and that he would clash with the real detective on the case, Frank Moretti. I knew Moretti had his own secrets. I knew who the killer was, though I would come to know him better as the writing went along. I had many of the major plot points worked out in advance, but by no means all of them. And once again, I didn’t know the ending in advance. That is, I knew that David would have to face off against the killer at the end, but I had no idea what the circumstances would be or how it would play out.”
Prequel or not, those familiar with Dolan’s distinctive writing style will find some “constants,” such as “playing around with point of view,” a device he especially enjoys using.
“I find that kind of structure is a good way to drive the plot along and to heighten conflict,” Dolan explains. “In BAD THINGS HAPPEN, much of the conflict was between David Loogan and Detective Elizabeth Waishkey, who were each, in their own way, trying to solve the murder of Tom Kristoll. The point of view shifts back and forth between the two of them. In THE LAST DEAD GIRL, most of the story is told in the first person from David’s point of view, but there are sections told in the third person from the point of view of two other characters: Jana Fletcher and her killer—who I referred to simply as ‘K’ throughout most of the book. This allowed me to explore Jana’s past and to let the reader know things about her that David doesn’t know. And writing from the killer’s point of view is generally a good way to raise the tension and the sense of menace in the story. Cutting between the point of view of the hero and the killer serves to propel the action forward, especially in the climactic scenes of the book.”
This also gives Dolan more latitude to do what he most enjoys: portraying the relationships between the characters. “The relationship between David and the detective, Frank Moretti, was fun to write, because David develops a respect for Moretti and yet doesn’t fully trust him,” Dolan says. “There’s also the relationship between David and Warren Finn, a childhood friend of Jana’s. Warren begins by being hostile toward David, but by the end they’ve forged a kind of bond. Another example is the relationship between the killer, ‘K,’ and a young woman named Jolene, who crosses paths with him at an inconvenient time. When I started writing, I didn’t know Jolene would be in the book. She just turned up—and I’m glad she did. I found that the killer really seemed to come alive when he met her. So even though she’s not around for very long, she has a lasting impact on him, and the scenes between the two of them were a joy to write.”
And scenes are important to Dolan, something he learned from Raymond Chandler, a writer high on his list of favorites. “I believe Chandler was talking about writing stories for pulp magazines where, he said, ‘the scene was everything,’ and a good plot was ‘one that made good scenes,’” Dolan offers. “Chandler said somewhere else that he admired Dashiell Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON because Hammett wrote scenes that had never been written before. I think that’s a goal that most writers would embrace, especially thriller writers: to write scenes that haven’t been written before. But of course, scenes can’t trump character: you can’t have your characters do things they wouldn’t do, just for the sake of a good scene. The trick is to find a balance. But it comes back to characters: if you find the right characters and manage to put them together in interesting ways, they’ll make good scenes for you.”
While an undergraduate philosophy student at Colgate University, Dolan had a unique opportunity to learn about the centrality of character and the art and craft of writing in general: he took courses with a master of fiction, Frederick Busch, who taught him “that a writer has to do justice to his characters.”
“Even in a crime novel, where the strength of the plot tends to be the primary concern, you have to remember that you’re writing about characters,” Dolan says recalling that advice. “And even though they’re invented people, they need to have their own truth if the reader is going to care about what happens to them. In each of my novels, the characters came to me first, and the storylines grew up around them.”
Besides Busch “reading my work and giving me feedback—and encouraging me to keep at it,” Dolan says he “gained immeasurably from reading Busch’s novels and short stories,” his favorite of which is GIRLS. “I believe Busch once described the writer’s job as ‘making language,’” he notes, “and the language he made had its own distinctive beauty.”
Dolan rounded out his writing education by less direct contact with other major authors. “I’d say I learned how to write dialogue from Lawrence Block and Gregory Mcdonald,” he says. “And I’ve learned a lot about plot twists from people like Thomas Harris and Jeffery Deaver. Some of my other favorites are Tana French, Michael Malone, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn, John Hart, Karin Slaughter, Stephen King, John Irving, and Kurt Vonnegut.”
And, because he had supported himself for most of his adult by editing academic journals, that, too, has had an impact on his writing. “One way it affects me is that I tend to write slowly, editing as I go along,” he says. “This is both good and bad. I’d like to be able to write faster. But as it is, my first drafts wind up being in pretty good shape. They require revision, of course, but not as much as they otherwise might, because I’ve been revising all along.”
Those first drafts are seen by only two people—his agent Victoria Skurnick and his significant other, Linda Randolph whom he has known for fourteen years and has lived with since 2006. “I’ll generally give them a manuscript only when it’s finished,” he says. “If I’m writing something, I can’t be worried about what someone else thinks of it, so I don’t show it to anyone while it’s in progress.”
When completed it goes off to Amy Einhorn, whom he terms “an excellent editor,” one he’s “fortunate to work with.”
“After I turn in a manuscript, she usually gives me several single-spaced pages of detailed comments,” he says. “She tells me what needs to be done, and I make the edits myself. It’s a system that has worked well.”
It obviously has since this novel has already received glowing reviews, and while gratifying, Dolan insists that’s not one of his major concerns. “If you start writing to please reviewers, you’ll drive yourself crazy, especially if the critics disagree with one another, as they often do,” he says. “You have to write what you think is a good story, one that you’d want to read. You can’t try to predict what someone else is going to like.”
He may not be able to predict it, but, as Dolan’s track record shows, he sure knows how to produce it.
Harry Dolan is the author of the mystery/suspense novels BAD THINGS HAPPEN (2009) and VERY BAD MEN (2011). He graduated from Colgate University, where he majored in philosophy and studied fiction-writing with the novelist Frederick Busch. A native of Rome, New York, he now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
To learn more about Harry, please visit his website.