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Mystery author Dolan returns with standalone novel

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Harry Dolan. His latest novel "The Man in the Crooked Hat" will be released Nov. 28, 2017, with a reading and book signing at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor. Not blade photo

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After gaining praise for three crime novels set in Ann Arbor and featuring amateur detective David Loogan, author Harry Dolan is shifting gears with his latest work.

Dolan will mark the release of his first standalone book, The Man in the Crooked Hat, with a reading and book signing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Nicola’s Books in Westgate Shopping Center, 2513 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor.

The Man in the Crooked Hat introduces Jack Pellum, a Detroit detective who left the police force after his wife’s murder. Eighteen months after her death, Jack is half-heartedly working as a private investigator while devoting most of his time to the only case that really matters to him. The only thing he has to go on, however, is a composite sketch of a man wearing a fedora.

Then a local writer commits suicide and leaves behind a cryptic message: “There’s a killer, and he wears a crooked hat.” While others believe the message is only a coincidence, Jack is convinced that he’s on the trail of his wife’s killer.

“I had the idea of police artist sketch of a suspect that was so vague that it didn’t really look like anybody, but the only distinguishing characteristic is the hat the suspect was wearing,” Dolan said. “The question was, if that was all you had to go on for a murder, what would you do. From there, the idea was what if a similar figure showed up at other crime scenes. That was sort of the germ of the idea.”

The Man in the Crooked Hat differs from the traditional whodunnit, because the reader is introduced early on to the killer, a device that Dolan said adds tension to the plot.

“You get more of a sense of who the killer is,” Dolan said. “You see the killer in action, and you see scenes from the killer’s point of view. The killer’s more of a presence in the novel, not just a shadowy figure in the background. ... I think that’s a good opportunity to make the character richer and make a more compelling book.”

Dolan, who lives in Ann Arbor, studied philosophy at Colgate University in New York, where he took a fiction writing class with prolific novelist Frederick Busch.

“He really encouraged me to keep on writing,” Dolan said.

After receiving a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Dolan decided that he didn’t want to teach, so he took a job as an editor for an academic journal in Bowling Green, where he lived for eight years. When he decided to take some time off to write a novel, he wanted a change of scenery and moved to Ann Arbor.

The first novel he wrote hasn’t been published.

But in 2009, Bad Things Happened was released, and Dolan was praised by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, which noted Dolan’s “gift for storytelling.”

“It was surprising,” Dolan said of the attention. “I got some very strong reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I credit the publisher for that.”

He returned to the source with two more novels featuring David Loogan in Very Bad Men (2011) and The Last Dead Girl (2014).

As a way to distinguish The Man in the Crooked Hat from the David Loogan series, Dolan shifted his setting from Ann Arbor to Detroit. He spent a lot of time in Detroit, particularly in the Midtown area around the Detroit Institute of Art, to research the novel.

“I picked out an apartment building where the main character would live and sort of walked around his neighborhood to get a feel for that,” Dolan said, noting that other areas such as Greektown, Corktown, and Eastern Market appear in the book. “It gives a glimpse of the city. I don’t claim to know Detroit really, really well, but I got a taste for it, and I try to convey that in the book.”

He also changed viewpoints with the credentials of his main characters.

“The detective in my series is an amateur detective; he’s really a magazine editor,” Dolan said. “So I wanted to do something different there, too. So in The Man in the Crooked Hat, the hero, Jack Pellum is a former homicide detective in Detroit, so he’s a professional, as a way to distinguish those two characters.”

Dolan hasn’t ruled out new work on Pellum or Loogan, but his next project is another stand-alone novel.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s about a soldier, a veteran of the Iraq war, and all I can tell you is that he is on the run from some very dangerous people,” Dolan said. “It’s maybe more of a thriller than a mystery, but there are some elements of mystery to it.”

Contact Shannon E. Kolkedy at: skolkedy@theblade.com.

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