Grief can carry a heavy burden, burrowing into the heart, obliterating other concerns, sometimes even self-preservation, as Harry Dolan shows in his clever fourth mystery, The Man in the Crooked Hat.
Jack Pellum carries that load nearly two years after his wife, Olivia, was found strangled near the Huron River in Detroit. Obsessed with finding the murderer, Jack lost his job as a police detective and has eschewed just about every chance his father, a prominent judge, offers to get his life back on track, including the private detective license his dad secretly arranged for him.
Jack is fixated on what-ifs. What if he had accompanied his photographer-wife that day when she went to take photos in the park? What if he had done something when he saw a man wearing a fedora a few days before Olivia was murdered? Meanwhile, Jack spends his days putting up fliers with the man’s likeness, most of which are soon ripped down.
The man in the hat is Michael Underhill, whose identity is revealed in the first chapter. Michael also is consumed by what-ifs, though his past is much darker — and more violent — than Jack’s.
Jack’s investigation jumpstarts when he learns that an author painted on his living room wall “There’s a killer, and he wears a crooked hat” before committing suicide.
Dolan skillfully sends Jack’s investigation on a circuitous route that includes the murders or others that may — or may not — have been committed by Michael. Along the way, Jack teams up with Paul Rook, a young man convinced that his mother also was murdered by the man in the hat. For Jack and Paul, Michael becomes a quasi- bogeyman, always “on the edge of things,” and they sometimes wonder if he is a phantom. But Michael thinks he’s just an ordinary guy who has just met a wonderful woman he believes he may marry.
The Man in the Crooked Hat expertly splinters into several investigations and delivers parallel stories of Jack’s quest and Michael’s rebuilding of his life. Each plot tendril blissfully leads to the next as Dolan illustrates intelligent plotting. A hint of humor and a flair for the ironic also elevate the story.