Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Last Dead Girl

Harry Dolan’s latest novel, The Last Dead Girl, starts with our protagonist, 26-year old David Malone sitting alone in a room with white tile walls and a pair of long fluorescent lights overhead as he awaits the police detective questioning him on the murder of Jana Fletcher. An hour later Detective Frank Moretti ambles in wearing a gray suit and tired eyes as he sits across from David, kicking off the questioning with an off the cuff “Why’d you kill the girl?” uttered in a mild and bored tone. “Seriously?” David says, “Does that ever work for you?” The two men spar over the details of David and Jana’s ten day love affair and the circumstances that brought David under Moretti’s suspicion.

Having met the beautiful and enigmatic law student only ten days earlier on what David liked to think of as the Night of the Doe, his answers were few and far between but he nonetheless shares the details of their meeting and days together. The catalyst behind the fateful night which sent him to Quaker Hill Road was finding an open condom wrapper in his fiancée’s pocket, a fact which left him reeling and in desperate need to get out of his apartment. Driving on the rain slicked road he’d come across Jana and had been captivated by her exotic beauty from the moment he’d stepped out of his car on that lonely stretch of road to help her after an accident. Her dark hair had been falling in curl, damp with beads of rain, her brown eyes clear and intense, as she crouched by the deer lying on the ground. As she’d gently stroked the doe’s fur he’d noticed the bruise on her check and the buttons missing from her blouse which were obviously not the results of the accident.

David had given Jana a ride home which had culminated in him spending the night at her place and the onset of their brief relationship. Only three days after that night, David had stood looking through the screen door at Jana on her patio and thought that “even though I had known her for only three days, I thought I might be in love with her.” Startled by his presence at the door, she’d whirled around and they’d embraced as Jana confessed feeling like someone had been watching her.
Someone was watching. Call him K if you like. That’s how he thought of himself at times like this. There were things he wouldn’t normally do, like slinking through the woods at night and spying on young lovers. Not his style. But K was different; he had no such inhibitions. Truth be told, K liked that sort of thing…and he was thinking about the girl and about what he had to do to her.”
The next morning given the still unknown source of the bruise, the suspicious events leading up to her accident, and Jana's feelings of being watched, David had walked into the woods behind Jana’s apartment to investigate and had only found a lone popsicle stick. Now seven days later, Jana’s been murdered and David finds himself sitting in the police station. After sharing his tale with Moretti, David is released since there’s no evidence against him. Determined to find Jana’s killer David moves in to her apartment and plans to start asking questions, beginning with the list of names he’d put together from Jana’s address book starting with Roger Tolliver, one of Jana’s professors.

As he attempts to uncover the truth, David finds a number of startling revelations about Jana, including the fact that the last few weeks of her life she was obsessively working on a case for the Innocence Project. A case involving the brutal murder of a local schoolteacher, Cathy Pruett, and the man convicted of her murder, her husband. Was Jana’s death linked to that murder? One revelation leads to another and quickly David is in over his head, as everyone becomes a suspect; including Detective Moretti whom coincidentally was also the lead detective in the Pruett murder. In his need to find justice for Jana, David digs deeper into the past, putting himself in harm’s way as unbeknownst to him the killer is watching every move he makes.

I really enjoyed this novel. I won't say love, because you might think less of me for loving something so twisted, but it was gripping and suspenseful and offered one surprising revelation after another. The mystery is complex and its resolution one you don’t readily see coming; while the characters are well-developed and feel very real. The heart of the tale offers a scary look at the pain and suffering human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, as well as the unfathomable depths of the human spirit’s endurance in its will to survive. It’s dark and icky at times but once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down.

The book alternates narrators as we bear witness to David’s thoughts and actions solving Jana’s murder, but more importantly Jana’s experiences and the chain of events that ultimately led to the confrontation with her killer. Despite the fact that she’s murdered in the first few pages of the book, it is the chapters which reveal through flashbacks the truth of Jana’s story in her voice that drive the book; every word of her tale is nail-bitingly scary and heartbreaking. Parts of the book are chilling in their vivid descriptions, and your skin crawls and heart races at the mere thought that something like that could actually happen, especially when you realize that stuff like that does happen (all you have to do is turn on the TV and watch the news).

Each of the main characters in the book – David, Jana, and K. – is so believably real that they engender heartfelt emotion from the reader, whether love, compassion or hate. David is perfect as the main protagonist; funny, charming, and kind and relentless in his pursuit for the truth, you can readily see in him the traits that would’ve appealed to Jana and her need to feel safe. I made a point of referring to David as the book’s protagonist and not hero, because the true hero of this tale is Jana. It was her fearless drive for justice that propelled the chain of events in this story. Jana’s courage and implacable sense of hope in spite of experiences endured made me feel both inspired by and in awe of her. K.’s narrative always held just the right amount of sinister creepiness to never leave in doubt the evil of which he was capable. His character offered an insightful look at the mind of a psychopath and the scary realization of what ugliness can hide behind the most innocent of masks.

The mystery reveals itself slowly as the author goes back and forth in time; showing us just enough to continually keep us engaged and then slowly exposes each layer of this intriguing tale; so when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re wrong. Given the book’s dark tone, I felt the story’s wrap-up once the mystery is resolved was apropos. Not necessarily how I would’ve handled things, but you know what they say, payback's a bitch.

The Last Dead Girl is supposedly a prequel to Harry Dolan’s previous novel Bad Things Happen, a book which Stephen King called (pardon the language) a “great fucking book.” I haven’t read Bad Things Happen, but after reading this white-knuckled thriller I’ll be sure to correct that situation soon. The Last Dead Girl is an absolutely absorbing and unpredictable roller coaster ride that will undoubtedly leave you, like me, searching for another book by this brilliant author.