- The Washington Times - Friday, July 22, 2011

VERY BAD MEN
By Harry Dolan
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, $26.95 432 pages

This is a mystery within a mystery within a mystery, and it is a tribute to the author’s skill that it retains attention as it unwinds and unwinds. At the inner limits of its darkness is Anthony Lark, who writes in an elegant black notebook with a Waterman pen and watches anxiously as flowing letters dissolve while his headache gets worse. The names of his potential victims glow red before him.

This is a man with a to-kill list that dates back to a bank robbery in which one man was maimed and another killed, leaving a long and bloody legacy of vengeance. Lark leaves a 10-page copy of a manuscript outside the office of David Loogan, the editor-in-chief of Grey Streets, a mystery magazine. Lark’s theory is that “we all want to be known. To be seen for who we really are.”

Yet he decides he has acted too fast in the disclosure of the manuscript.

Loogan notes that it isn’t unusual for people to send him stories about killers. “This one was different. It was the story of three murders, two already committed, one yet to come. And it wasn’t fiction.”

He turns over the manuscript to the police, including his lover, Elizabeth, who is a detective. It becomes the first clue to a mystery in which Anthony Lark is as pathetic as he is dangerous because he is no more than a tool in a dark conspiracy that winds its way up to powerful political circles. Loogan becomes deeply involved in the mystery and gets himself shot, yet remains undiscouraged in the course of his investigation.

What makes this novel captivating is how its plot moves in ever-widening circles, drawing the reader with it. Each character is an entity in his or her own world, from Callie, the young woman of a famous family with a “golden smile” and political ambitions, to the denizens of the underworld. The story is about the motives people have for killing each other, sometimes as a result of convoluted human relationships. This is a jigsaw in which the crucial pieces of the puzzle ironically culminate in unnecessary tragedy.

It does Mr. Dolan’s writing credit that it isn’t troubling to the reader that his plot depends on a minor crime that festered for years.

Loogan is reflective about the developments, the small things that came together - the playing card on which was written critical information about a prison escape plan, from the handcuff key beside a vase of roses at the cemetery to a getaway car. All of it carefully listed on an ace of diamonds card slipped to a prisoner.

As the pieces slot into the puzzle, Loogan observes, “I might have made a list of all the men who had died because of the choices John Casterbridge had made.”

Because in the end it turns out to be a United States senator who has caused the deaths of half a dozen people to protect his son who was a participant in a 17-year-old crime. That the senator now is slowly dying of a neurological disease seems a grim but appropriate culmination of his capacity for ruthlessness.

The author is particularly deft with his description of Lark, the potential assassin who suffers from a debilitating headache and is forced to worry about where he can replenish his supply of the medication that allows him to concentrate on cold-blooded planning.

Lark has killed before, but only to avenge the death of a woman whom he loved and who was abused by her husband. This killing is different, and there is the suggestion that he realizes that he may neither survive nor benefit. There is a certain poignancy in his gratitude for the sympathy of a young female neighbor who knows nothing about him except that he needs help.

Prominent among the carefully drawn characters is Lucy Navarro, an ambitious young newspaperwoman who puts no limits on what she will do to get a good story. But her assiduous cultivation of the senator as a source of information on scandal and national security depends on her capacity to gauge whether he is telling her the truth. The senator acknowledges, in a tart comment on Lucy’s lack of experience, “Some of the things I told her are true. They’re also unclassified and available from published sources. The rest I made up.”

The senator is amoral and not in the least remorseful about the deaths that he has brought about. He is the kind of politician that voters should fear most because there is nothing he will not do to further his own interests and those of his family.

Story Continues →