I’m not a murder mystery fan but I read Motor City Shakedown in an eight hour session because it was that intriguing. I admit my initial interest was due to the location—metro Detroit, my home for five years. Even though I lived there until 2008 and the story takes place in 1911, the streets the protagonist raced through or hid in were familiar names. So was the violence and corruption, although somewhat subdued from my vantage point in my Corktown neighborhood.
I love Detroit but I’ve wondered why it grows youth who turn to crime, often of the violent kind, not just for the money. Many do it to earn the respect of their peers and enemies. I have listened to young Detroiters tell stories of high schools where shooting was their response to being dissed (disrespected), their attendance required in places more like war zones than preparation for responsible adulthood. Johnson writes of the Purple Gang, boys who would have been grandfathers to the boys I met. To the teenaged Purple Gang, murder was no more serious than any other work assignment and would be carried out for whoever was willing to pay. Even though this is a novel, Johnson has done sufficient research to become knowledgeable about Detroit gangsters and the example they must have been to their grandchildren. The book may be a revelation of why too many Detroit youth turn to crime.
But this is not a morality story; it is the realistic narrative of the historical Motor City with its immense potential. Johnson gives us a glimpse of life in the time of Henry Ford (with a flattering portrait of his son, Edsel). In the early 20th century when automobiles were not yet in every garage and electric cars were as accepted as early Fords, in a time before unions had come into full power, money could buy products and people, even local police. In that era, the main character, Will Anderson, doesn’t rely on police to protect him or expect justice to prevail. He creates his own security and executes his own brand of justice. Help is offered, but Will must choose who is on his side and who is using him. And he is not always right.
Will is right about his former fiancé, Elizabeth. Their restored relationship provides a romantic twist for those of us who appreciate a kiss now and then as a reprieve from shootouts and other acts of violence. Elizabeth is not only his partner in dealing with the bad guys, but also his salvation from addiction to morphine. He uses it for the constant pain from a hand destroyed by an act of heroism. But that’s an earlier story.
Read both. In Motor City Shakedown, Johnson tells a story for just about everyone, with its drama, history, mystery, and romance. It even has a trace of social consciousness, such as coverage of what Will thinks of a lecture on Taylorism or of eating at an automat, a food factory. The mystery of which group “did it” is finally solved, but the issue of Will and Elizabeth’s survival in such a dangerous world remains uncertain. I look forward to some assurances in a sequel.