One cryptic clue leads a desperate man into a labyrinthine puzzle of murder in the electrifying new novel from national bestselling author Harry Dolan.
There's a killer, and he wears a crooked hat.
Private investigator Jack Pellum has spent two years searching for the man who he believes murdered his wife--a man he last saw wearing a peacoat and a fedora. Months of posting fliers and combing through crime records yield no leads. Then a local writer commits suicide, and he leaves a bewildering message that may be the first breadcrumb in a winding trail of unsolved murders . . .
Michael Underhill is a philosophical man preoccupied by what-ifs and could-have-beens, but his life is finally coming together. He has a sweet and beautiful girlfriend, and together they're building their future home. Nothing will go wrong, not if Underhill has anything to say about it. The problem is, Underhill has a dark and secret past, and it's coming back to haunt him.
These two men are inexorably drawn together in a mystery where there is far more than meets the eye, and nothing can be taken for granted. Filled with devious reversals and razor-sharp tension, The Man in the Crooked Hat is a masterwork from "one of America's best new crime writers" (Lansing State Journal).
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
On the shore of the Huron River, Michael Underhill sits in the grass with his back against a tree. He watches the sunlight glinting on the water. He listens to the burble of the current.
The woman is next to him, her back against the same tree. You could see them from the river, if you were out there in a canoe. But it’s late in the season. There’s no one on the water.
Underhill picks up a leaf from the ground beside him.
“Sometimes I think too much,” he says in a quiet voice. “I remember this thing that happened, an accident. Just dumb. I was driving to the grocery store on a Saturday afternoon, coming up to an intersection. I had the green light. There was a fire truck idling on the cross street. He had the red, so he was waiting. But he must have gotten a call, because suddenly he turned on his lights and siren.”
The leaf is yellow and dry. Underhill twirls it by the stem.
“Now I have to decide. Hit the brakes or go on through. It happened fast, but I remember thinking: This is not good. I hit the brakes. And I stopped in time, right at the intersection. But the car behind me didn’t. It slammed into me—I can still remember the sound. The driver was a kid. I think she was nineteen.”
He holds the leaf steady and looks at the veins.
“No one got hurt, and even the damage to my car wasn’t too bad. I had to take it in and have them replace the bumper and the taillights. The girl’s car was worse, but it wasn’t my problem. I wasn’t at fault. What the whole thing amounted to was a bad afternoon and some phone calls to the insurance company and a week of inconvenience while my car was in the shop. But I kept thinking about it. It didn’t have to happen. I could have made a different choice. When the driver of the fire truck turned on his siren, he didn’t move out into the intersection right away. I could have gone through and there would have been no harm. No damage. No hassle. So why didn’t I go through?”
Underhill closes his hand around the leaf and feels it crumble. The woman is silent beside him.
“It still bugs me, even though it happened years ago,” he says. “And this thing today, I know it’s going to be the same. I’m going to wonder if it might have turned out differently. If I had taken a different tack. If I had talked to you in a different place. It’ll bother me for a long time. In my defense, I think I handled it pretty well. I was friendly. You were friendly. We struck up a conversation. It’s broad daylight in a public park. You shouldn’t have been nervous. I didn’t think you were nervous. And I worked my way up to it—to asking you the question. It wasn’t a hard question. There’s no reason it should have made you suspicious. If you had given me a straight answer, that would have been the end of it. I would have smiled and gone away. No harm. All you had to do was tell me the truth.”
He opens his hand and lets the pieces of the leaf fall to the ground.
“But I could see that you weren’t comfortable,” he says. “You didn’t trust me. That wasn’t right. I didn’t deserve it. And then pretending you didn’t remember. That’s just clumsy. Anyone would have seen through that. What was I supposed to do? Let it go? How could I? By then we’d gone too far. You were starting to be afraid of me. You shouldn’t have been afraid of me.”
Underhill gets up from the ground and brushes his hands over the front of his shirt. A cool wind touches his face. The woman doesn’t stir.
Out in the river, a fish breaks the surface of the water.
“You shouldn’t have been afraid of me,” Underhill says again.
The woman’s camera is lying in the grass where it fell. Underhill lifts it by the strap, swings it back and forth to build momentum, and hurls it out into the middle of the river.
He returns to the tree and crouches down. He touches a lock of hair that has fallen over the woman’s forehead. He takes her earrings from her ears, takes her wedding band. Throws them out into the water. They don’t go as far, but it’s far enough.
He stands on the shore, wondering if there’s anything else he should do.
“This is as much on you as it is on me,” he says after a while. “I’m not going to feel bad about this.”
One last look around. His hat is in the grass. He picks it up and puts it on his head and walks away.
Eighteen months later
If you wandered through midtown Detroit that spring, you saw the flyers.
You saw them if you went to the Shinola store on Canfield Street, or Third Man Records, or any sort of hipster hangout. One on every stretch of bare brick wall. You saw them on the campus of Wayne State University and at each entrance to the public library. You saw them in front of the DIA—the Detroit Institute of Arts—taped to the granite base of Rodin’s Thinker. At least until the maintenance workers came to peel them off.
They were sheets of white paper, eight and a half by eleven, printed with a composite sketch of a man’s face—a man wearing a fedora. There were two lines of type above the sketch. The first asked: have you seen him? The second was an e-mail address.
You may have spotted the person who put them up. He would have been carrying a sheaf of them under his arm, and a roll of white duct tape. You might have wondered about him. He wore good clothes, but sometimes he wore them carelessly. One sleeve rolled up and one left down. Shirttails untucked. His hygiene left no room for complaint, but his shaving was haphazard. He moved at his own pace, half a step slower than everyone around him. If you got close enough to see his eyes, you might have suspected he wasn’t getting enough sleep.
If you tried to engage him in conversation, it would have been hit-or-miss. He could be friendly, but he might not have patience for small talk. He was a difficult person to get to know.
His name was Jack Pellum.
That Tuesday, Jack had one important thing to do, and two unimportant things.
The first unimportant thing was an appointment with Dr. Eleanor Brannon at her office on Selden Street. He arrived twenty minutes late.
Dr. Brannon heard his knock and greeted him at the door. She offered him one of the two chairs in the room and took the other. The low table between them held a box of tissues and a vase of spring flowers. Jack moved the vase aside to make room for his stack of flyers. The duct tape went on top.
There were pleasantries. Wasn’t it a fine sunny afternoon? It was. Did Jack have any trouble finding the office? None at all.
Dr. Brannon opened a file in her lap and put on a pair of reading glasses.
“You were seeing Dr. Kershaw,” she said.
“And it turned out the two of you had different styles of communication.”
Jack settled back in his chair. “Is that what he told you?”
“Not in so many words. He said you threatened him.”
Dr. Brannon’s voice was mild. Unconcerned.
“Really?” Jack said.
“You told him—” She consulted the file. “You told him you wanted to rip out his heart and eat it. . . . That’s quite colorful.”
“It’s not true.”
“I said I wanted to cut out his heart and fry it in a pan. I never said anything about eating it.”
Dr. Brannon may have wanted to smile. Jack couldn’t be sure. If she did, she resisted.
“And you weren’t making a threat,” she said.
“I was trying to make a point. He kept telling me that his office was a safe place. I could say anything I wanted there, without fear of being judged.” Jack paused, tapping the arm of the chair. “I don’t think he understood me.”
Dr. Brannon turned a page in the file. “So, as I said, you had different styles of communication. Why did you go to him originally?”
“My father thought I would benefit from talking to someone.”
“You’re thirty-five years old.”
“So you’re not bound by your father’s wishes.”
“No, but I have reasons to take his wishes into account.”
“He’s paying my rent, for one thing.”
Dr. Brannon looked up at Jack. “You don’t have money of your own? You’re not working?”
“Not for a while.”
“I understand you used to be a police officer.”
“I was a detective.”
“But not anymore.”
“I quit. The year before last.”
“You know why,” Jack said. “It’s in the file.”
“I’d like to hear it from you.”
Sometimes Jack’s hands make themselves into fists without his realizing. He opened them now and flexed his fingers.
“My wife died,” he said.
“She was murdered.”
“She was strangled on an afternoon in October,” Jack said, “and left propped against a tree by the shore of the Huron River.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Brannon.
Jack never knew how to respond to condolences. He kept quiet.
“And after that,” the doctor said, “you didn’t want to be a detective anymore.”
“After that, I desperately wanted to be a detective. But the only case I cared about was hers, and no one would let me anywhere near it. My lieutenant told me to take some time off.”
“And you haven’t gone back.”
“I can’t see the point.”
“It might do you good, to be working. Some people find that work helps them cope with grief.”
Jack flexed his fingers again. “Is that where we are now? You’re going to ask me how I’m coping?”
“Does that word bother you?”
“I don’t care about the word.”
“Do you think you’re dealing well with your wife’s death?”
“Should I be honest?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your goddamn business.”
The profanity left the doctor unfazed. She turned some more pages.
“Yet you’re here,” she said. “Do you want to tell me about George Hanley?”
“Jesus, is that in the file?”
“You were arrested for assaulting him two months ago. You broke his nose.”
“That’s not entirely accurate.”
“I wasn’t arrested.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened.”
Jack leaned forward, let out a long breath. “Look, that was a mistake. I wasn’t thinking clearly. You have to understand, when you’re investigating a homicide, sometimes there’s very little to go on. And then maybe you start reaching. For anything. Olivia was a photographer. A freelancer. One of the things she did, she worked for Ford, photographing cars for their brochures. That’s a good job. It pays well. After she died, George Hanley got hired to replace her. So, in a sense, he benefited from her death. That gave him a motive.”
“Did Mr. Hanley have a criminal record?”
“But you thought he might have killed your wife to pick up some freelance work.”
“I just wanted to talk to him,” Jack said. “I’m afraid I didn’t come across very well. He didn’t like the tone of my questions. He got angry. We both did.”
“You hit him.”
“It went further than I intended.”
“But you weren’t arrested.”
Dr. Brannon took off her reading glasses. “Even though you shouldn’t have been questioning him in the first place. You had no authority. And you caused him grave physical harm.”
“I don’t know how grave it was.”
“He didn’t call the police?”
“Oh, he called them, and they came,” Jack said. “They put me in the back of a squad car and drove me away. If you want to call that an arrest. Nothing happened to me. From what I heard, Hanley wanted to press charges at first, and then later on he didn’t.”
“What made him change his mind?”
“I imagine someone talked to him. You know who my father is, right?”
Dr. Brannon nodded. “He’s a judge.”
“He’s a federal judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.”
She raised an eyebrow. “So you’re saying he made the assault charge go away.”
“I’m pretty sure he made the assault itself go away. If you went looking, I think you’d find that there’s not a scrap of documentation. No incident report, no witness statements. It never happened. I’m surprised he didn’t send someone to scrub it from that file.”
Dr. Brannon balanced her glasses on the arm of her chair. She smoothed her hair from her forehead. It was dark but turning silver. She was probably ten years older than Jack. Short, slender, well dressed in a silk blouse and a navy blue skirt. She seemed calm and benevolent and Jack wanted to like her.
She said, “Do you think your father is looking out for your best interests?”
“I’m not here to talk about my father.”
“Yet he’s come up twice now. Tell me about him.”
“He’s not an easy man to explain.”
“Tell me the first thing that comes to mind.”
“He used to play catch with me when I was a kid.”
She smiled. “Tell me the second thing that comes to mind.”
Jack hesitated. Studied the flowers on the table between them. Finally he looked up and met her eyes.
“This past Christmas, my father wanted to know about my plans for the future. I said I was thinking about going back to school, to study law.”
“Then about six weeks ago I got an acceptance letter from the law school of the University of Michigan. They’re holding a place for me there in the fall.”
“You’re not following me,” Jack said. “I didn’t apply. I wasn’t that serious about it. My father made it happen. He took care of it, like he took care of the assault. That’s only the beginning. Last week I got my private investigator’s license.”
The doctor tipped her head to the side. “You didn’t apply for that either?”
“I didn’t have to. It came in the mail—because a while back I happened to mention that it was an option I was considering, becoming a P.I. I got business cards last week too: Jack Pellum Investigations. They showed up on my doorstep. I’ve already been getting calls from potential clients. Apparently I advertise online. If you google ‘Detroit private investigators,’ my name comes up first.”
Dr. Brannon looked thoughtful for a moment. “It sounds like your father wants to help you. I’m not saying he’s going about it in the right way. But it sounds like his intentions are good. Would you agree?”
“What do you think he wants for you?”
“He says he wants me to be happy.”
“You sound skeptical.”
“I think he’d take happy if he could get it. Otherwise he’d settle for normal.”
“What do you want?”
“That’s a large question.”
“And again I’m not sure if it’s any of your business.”
It seemed to Jack that Dr. Brannon wanted to sigh. But she managed to hold it in.
“All right,” she said. “What do you want from me?”
He let a few seconds pass, making up his mind.
“I might like to come here and talk to you. Occasionally.”
“For what purpose?”
“To keep my father off my back.”
“You could get the same result by pretending to come here,” she said. “What would we talk about?”
“It doesn’t really matter.”
“Would we talk about Olivia?”
“I don’t know if I can help you.”
“I don’t expect you to.”
Dr. Brannon closed the file, and her eyes turned sad and kind.
“Your wife died, for no good reason,” she said. “People die and leave us behind and we have to find a way to go on. You’re coming up against the human condition, Mr. Pellum. You could meet with me and talk about her and it might make you feel better. Or it might not.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jack said.