Book Review: A Dangerous Fiction

You’ll likely pause on page 79 as you’re zipping through Barbara Rogan’s mystery, A Dangerous Fiction (Viking), to flip back to the Preface. Yes, you read these exact same words there. Only now, in Chapter 8, they’re foreboding, since the stalking that sets the narrative in motion—one “dark and stormy night”—has given way to murder. It’s a clever narrative device Rogan has fashioned with this structural prompt to look back; another reason to appreciate the author’s imaginative conception and polished writing skills. The literary allusion to Bulwer-Lytton’s Victorian novel that begins “It was a dark and stormy night” fits the central character because 35-year-old Jo Donovan, widow of one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, heads up a prestigious literary agency. The stalker who accosts her wears a trench coat and a fedora pulled down over his face, so she refers to him as Sam Spade.

The novel resonates with insider lore: Who would have known except someone in the business that the world of writers, agents and editors is so fraught with backstabbing intrigue. Or that if Jo and a nasty but spot-on biographer were to have an affair, “it would be entirely tax-deductible.” But that’s not all readers learn from this well-researched book. Guard dog training also tucks neatly into the narrative. As Jo’s friend Gordon, an ex-FBI guy turned author remarks, “any weapon can be taken away and turned against you, but nobody turns a dog against his master.” Gordon is only one of several colorful secondary characters whose credible delineations keep them from becoming stereotypes. Still, as each becomes a possible suspect, Jo will wonder if she’s read them correctly. Belatedly, she’ll turn the question on herself—the book’s theme—has she been living a dangerous fiction about her life with Hugo? “The lies we tell are part of the truth we live,” the nasty biographer says, quoting the real-life biographer Michael Holroyd.

The author, who grew up on Long Island, knows whereof she writes. A Dangerous Fiction, Rogan’s eighth work of fiction, reflects her extensive experience in both Israel and New York working in the world of books as an editor and agent, serving on boards, leading writing workshops, in person and online and starting her own literary agency. Jo knows what she knows: “Editors might be laid off in droves, production outsourced to India, and lists slashed to the bone, but the publishing lunch will never die.” Jo, a charming but flawed heroine, is an engaging character, honest, direct, courageous, a country girl from Kentucky who came to New York to be in the big time, leaving behind memories of an abusive childhood with a cruel grandmother, and a boyfriend, Tommy Cullen. Once in the city, her energy and intelligence become apparent at the Molly Hamish Literary Agency (eventually Hamish Donovan), and soon she manages to meet the handsome, famous Hugo Donovan, a notorious playboy, who’s hiding out in Sag Harbor, and snag him. Life could not be more literati/glitterati—posh digs, restaurants, parties and more. Until…

…that “dark night” encounter with Sam Spade, who tries to foist a manuscript upon her, threats and all. Destructive emails follow, hoaxes sent under Jo’s name, designed to ruin her and her firm. Nothing, however, prepares her for the brutal murders of two friends whose blood is used to send her a cryptic message: “can you hear me now?” The police are baffled, including the lead detective, Tommy, her old flame. Jo is stunned: “How could it be that of all the damn cop shops in the city, I walked into his?” Could he be involved somehow, exacting revenge for having been dumped? A Dangerous Fiction is a well-contrived fiction with side benefits for aspiring writers. An example of how the elements of fiction fit together to create a suspenseful and engaging tale, it also portrays the precarious world of writing and publishing. As Hugo once remarked to Jo about “the insecurity of fiction writers,” they’re “tightrope walkers…crossing chasms on strings of words.” They know “intellectually that their agents have other clients, but most prefer to think of themselves as only children.”

Barbara Rogan will be reading on Saturday, August 17 at the home of Mitch and Nancy Berken at 60 Bayview Drive East, Sag Harbor, at 3:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public (rain date is August 18).

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