D.E. Johnson: Motor City Shakedown

Like his first novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme, D.E. Johnson’s second novel featuring the troubled Will Anderson is a richly layered portrait of Detroit in 1911. Poised at the dawn of the burgeoning auto industry, Will’s family owns the Detroit Electric Company, a producer of electric cars. The pricey electrics, quiet and easy to start, were driven mainly by wealthy women, but gasoline cars, cheaper and faster than electrics, are starting to overtake the market, despite the difficulty in starting them. And Henry Ford, with his ceaseless march toward efficiency in the workplace, is overtaking the electric in that way as well. His moving assembly line concept is miles ahead of the way electrics were produced, one bit at a time, carted between workstations.

Both the tension inherent in being part of a dying segment of the auto industry, as well as the creativity inherent in the spectacular and constant growth of a new industry, make for a wonderful background to Johnson’s books. Will himself is the kind of outsider/insider key to a mystery series, especially a very noir one, as this series is. Will is both the family black sheep and the family hope. As the book opens, Will is caressing a morphine bottle in his pocket, the morphine necessitated by the shattering of his hand in the last novel. The fact that it’s now an addiction is of course getting him into some trouble.

Johnson’s insight into the mind of an addict is pretty keen, and it’s a pretty bleak and depressing picture. Though Will gets sober during the course of the novel, some of the narrative is tough to read as he makes one bad choice after another. While he’s been to college and lived an advantaged life, he’s blown through lots of chances. However, both his parents and his former fiancée, Elizabeth, are sticking by him. And as Will grapples his way toward adulthood, he’s starting to appreciate his family, Elizabeth, and the chances he’s been given in life.

At the beginning of the novel Will is wrongly arrested and tried for the murder of a small time hood – when salvation comes at the last moment of his trial, Will quickly discovers that salvation has a price. He’s ordered – on pain of the deaths of his parents and Elizabeth – to get the teamsters a toehold in Detroit Electric. Will knows his father will never agree, and wonders how to get out of this dilemma, a dilemma that has a ticking clock attached to it.

As Will is relentlessly drawn into the various gangs working Detroit – primarily two Italian ones, though there are some young boys coming up who will eventually form The Purple Gang – he tries to play one against the other, with the surprising help of Elizabeth, whose favorite sentence turns out to be “check the ammo.” As they lurk undercover with the help of the only straight cop on the Detroit Police force, they also find their way back to each other, past various misunderstandings and wrongs done by Will in the past.

This is an historical novel immersed in history, a history that seems so recent in some ways and so far away in others. It was a time when America was becoming a great world power, and Johnson deftly captures the excitement, energy and violence that goes along with the birth of a new era. Because he’s also wonderful at characterization, his novels stay in your mind after you finish them. This is a new author well worth seeking out.