To start off a mysterious crime novel by directly identifying the sinister killer is a bold move. Yet Harry Dolan’s latest book, “The Man in the Crooked Hat,” thrives on such twists. Smart, subtle and subversive, Dolan’s latest lights a needed fire under a genre that often falls victim to formulaic, predictable plots and cardboard-cutout protagonists. With an intricate, unpredictable plot layered over a web of complex characters, events and motives, “The Man in the Crooked Hat” cleverly presents its intricacies and manages to keep the reader thinking as it burns to a fiery conclusion. Recently, The Daily had a chance to sit down with Mr. Dolan and discuss his newest novel, his writing career and his meditations on writing itself.
The Michigan Daily: How do you avoid falling into the same holes that most average crime thrillers are plagued by?
Harry Dolan: I do a lot of plotting of the books in advance. I’m thinking very deliberately about the plot twists. That’s sort of my business. It’s all about misdirection, of course, there are two things going on in the book — what the reader thinks is happening and is going to happen, and then what’s actually happening. You need to be thinking about that all the time, and that’s what I think about when I’m planning these books. I focus on trying to make it plausible, then create mysteries that the reader would not even be expecting. In this book, I reveal the name of the killer, Michael Underhill, right at the onset, so what the reader is expecting is how the story is going to follow the detective Jack Pellum finally finding the man who killed his wife. So when Pellum goes to investigate separate, possibly related murders of high school students, it turns out that those expectations of the reader are overturned. Obviously, the tricky part is figuring out how to do that. It’s hard to talk about this without giving too much away [laughs].
Raymond Chandler talked about this because even in his time, crime novels were becoming formulaic and it was hard to surprise the reader. His solution was to throw in a problem that the reader doesn’t even know about, small background details or minor characters that come to the forefront by the end of the book. That’s one way to think about that.
TMD: What do you think makes your book stand out from the sea of similar novels out there?
HD: First of all, there’s the setting. Southeast Michigan serves as the backdrop for the story, in and around Detroit and small towns like Belleville and Chelsea. I spent a lot of time in Detroit while I was writing the book, especially in the Midtown area around the Detroit Institute of Arts. I walked around that neighborhood, I sought an apartment building where my protagonist would live, I know his address and the places he would go and the sights he would see.
I think another big thing is the way “The Man in the Crooked Hat” deals with the killer. You know his name from the start, and there are a lot of scenes written from his perspective. All this makes the character of the villain richer because, in a lot of mystery novels, the villain never appears until some final confrontation at the end, they’re just this shadowy figure that acts in the background. However, there are a handful of scenes with Michael Underhill; his parents and childhood are detailed, he has a romance with this one woman he’s falling in love with and building a house so they can live together. He’s got goals, but he also has a dark past he needs to get away from. You can even sympathize in some cases with him.
TMD: If authors covered novels like musicians covered songs, what novel would you want to cover? Not necessarily make it better, but give it your own personal spin.
HD: The thing that comes to mind first is a book by Donna Tartt, “The Secret History,” which is about this group of college students who commit a murder. The whole book is about the motivations behind it, the psychology of this group of characters. I’ve actually thought about writing a novel at a college like that, this question is not entirely hypothetical. I love the rest of Donna Tartt’s work, but especially that one. It’s the book I would want if I was trapped on a desert island.
TMD: Do you ever read reviews of your books? How do you respond to positive and negative criticism?
HD: I always tell myself I’m not going to read them, but I always ended up reading them [laughs]. I’m lucky in the sense I’ve got mostly positive reviews for my books — I still get negative ones, definitely. I read them, but I try to forget about it soon after. I don’t know what good comes from worrying about it. You like to have good reviews obviously, but you can’t let it affect what you’re writing. I’m not trying to please some reviewer I don’t even know, although sometimes it’s tempting to try.
TMD: Since your last four novels are all similar mysterious crime thrillers, do you ever feel constrained by the limits of the genre? Any plans to write outside your comfort zone?
HD: I like to read a lot of genre fiction, and when I was a kid, I was reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction. When I was younger and thinking about becoming a writer, I thought that’s what I was going to do. I loved [J.R.R.] Tolkien, I wanted to write books like that. I didn’t have the first idea on how anybody got to be a writer, though. In college, I really got into mystery novels. I was studying philosophy but reading a lot of crime novels, basically everything the college library had. I went to Colgate University and took a class on fiction writing with a novelist named Frederick Busch. He was very encouraging to me, and he was the one who told me to keep on writing, outside of the short stories I wrote for his class. As much as anything, that gave me the hope that I could make it as a writer; I’m indebted to him. Anyways, since then, I haven’t really been tempted to write anything else, the plan is to keep on doing this, albeit with some new differences.
The book that I’m writing now leans more on thriller than mystery, so there’s more action. It’s about an ex-soldier, a veteran of the Iraq War, who brings back with him treasure that’s been looted from the National Museum in Baghdad. He gets in trouble with that and there are some very dangerous people after him. That’s all I can say about that now, but it’s in the early stages now and I’m still figuring out where it’s going to go.