Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Crime and Craziness in Car Town

A “bird’s eye-view” of downtown Detroit, circa 1912, with the Wayne County Building near the center.

Let’s face it, I was bound to be a sucker for D.E. “Dan” Johnson’s first mystery novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme (2010). For one thing, I have long been a fan of historical crime fiction, and this tale was set in Detroit, Michigan, in 1910. Also, I’d lived for a while (probably not long enough) in the Motor City, so its past was of more than passing interest to me. And the book’s blending of fictitious homicide with electric-car manufacturing was sufficiently unusual to summon my attention. Although I hadn’t asked that the novel be sent my way, I had trouble setting it aside once it arrived at my office, and gobbled it up over just a few long sittings.

The Detroit Electric Scheme, for those who haven’t yet read the book, introduces Will Anderson, the young and intemperate heir to the real-life Anderson Electric Car Company--which, among other products, made The Detroit Electric, an early but remarkably efficient, battery-powered vehicle. Its plot is summed up quite succinctly in this description from publisher Minotaur Books:
Will Anderson is a drunk, heartbroken over the breakup with his fiancée, Elizabeth. He’s barely kept his job at his father’s company--Detroit Electric, 1910’s leading electric automobile manufacturer. Late one night, Elizabeth’s new fiancé and Will’s one-time friend, John Cooper, asks Will to meet him at the car factory. He finds Cooper dead, crushed in a huge hydraulic roof press. Surprised by the police, Will panics and runs, leaving behind his cap and automobile, and buries his blood-spattered clothing in a garbage can.

What follows is a fast-paced, detail-filled ride through early-1900s Detroit, involving murder, blackmail, organized crime, the development of a wonderful friendship, and the inside story on early electric automobiles. Through it all, Will learns that clearing himself of the crime he was framed for is only the beginning. To survive, and for his loved ones to survive, he must also become a man.
Doing the research for that debut work, recalls the 53-year-old Johnson, was a particularly time-consuming project. He needed to develop an intimate familiarity with what life was like in America’s Upper Midwest during the early 20th-century. “Newspaper archives are the best source of info on the way people lived and what was on their minds,” he explains, “and I’ve spent a great deal of time combing the [Detroit] Free Press and News. I think the main branch of the Detroit Public Library has a permanently reserved chair for me at one of the microfiche machines.”

Having once gathered so much background material, though, the author could make excellent use of it again in his sequel, Motor City Shakedown (2011), which built around Detroit’s early organized crime history and the city’s first mob war--subjects about which he had much to say in this essay for The Rap Sheet.

Now comes Detroit Breakdown, which is new in U.S. bookstores this week. Its story is set in 1912 and finds the increasingly daring (some might even say “foolhardy”) Anderson volunteering to be thrown into Eloise Hospital, an insane asylum that was once located near the site of today’s Detroit Metro Airport. His goal is to help Robert Clarke, a resident of the institution who is also his ex-fiancée, Elizabeth Hume’s cousin. Clarke has been accused of slaying one of his fellow patients, but Elizabeth is convinced he’s innocent. The only way to investigate the matter, it seems, is to do so covertly, with Will feigning serious amnesia in order to get inside the asylum’s walls and question its inmates--who insist that a Phantom of the Opera-like figure, not the feeble Robert, is responsible for the hospital’s declining population. Meanwhile, Elizabeth adopts a rather dowdy disguise in order to win an unpaid support position at the hospital that will bring her into contact with gossiping nurses.

There are dangers facing this intrepid pair at what seems like every turn. As the blog Crime Fiction Lover points out in its review:
By going into Eloise Hospital, Will puts himself at the mercy of the maladroit psychiatric treatments of that period. He is subjected to radiation, alternating baths of frigid then steaming water, and other practices that will likely seem more like torture than therapy to readers today. Will must accept abuse from asylum staff and avoid fights with other inmates to find the truth about Robert and the Phantom. ...
Inspired in part by early female journalist Nellie Bly’s undercover investigation of a New York women’s lunatic asylum in 1887, Detroit Breakdown builds from an archetypal mystery into a suspenseful tale of concealed identities and hidden motives, set predominately inside a mental institution where even the real can be pretty unreal.

I took the opportunity recently to conduct an e-mail interview with author Dan Johnson, who lives just outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his wife of 23 years, Shelly. Part of that exchange appeared yesterday in my Kirkus Reviews column. But the remainder you’ll find posted below. This second section of our conversation covers Johnson’s longtime interest in history, the research he did for his Detroit novels, the evolution of characters Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume, and a second mystery series he’d like to launch in the near future.

J. Kingston Pierce: Did you grow up in a bookish family?

D.E. Johnson: I think I’ll go for semi-bookish. My parents have always read a lot, but until he retired, my dad’s reading was mostly Field & Stream and the like. My mom always had a book at hand, and she encouraged my four brothers and I to read. (I think she just wanted some peace and quiet.)

JKP: It took you a while to embark on the celebrated life of a novelist. What are some of the previous jobs you held?

DEJ: I spent most of my life in audio/video retail. From 1991 to 2006 I owned a company that specialized in high-end stereo systems, home theater, and the like. I was fortunate to be able to sell the business and then take a couple of years off from work to learn how to write.

When the business I sold went under in 2008, my revenue stream vanished, and I had to find a new job. I was fortunate enough to get a position managing real-estate offices for a very good company. I started at the low point in the housing market, and it’s been an interesting--but mostly positive--ride. Perhaps one day I’ll just write, but I’m happy with the job and my life as is, so I’m not in any hurry.

JKP: When did you start thinking you might become a writer?

DEJ: That desire goes back to childhood. As I grew older, I realized people liked my writing, and I thought hard about pursuing creative writing in college. Practicality won out, and I got a teaching degree that I never used. (Student teaching cured me of my desire to teach.)

Not writing had been the biggest source of frustration in my life. Even owning a successful company, I was never happy with my work. My wife and kids [he has “three lovely and talented daughters,” all of whom have now moved away from home] encouraged me to take the plunge finally and write, and their support was crucial in getting me here.

(Right) D.E. Johnson

JKP: I’ve heard that you belong to a writers’ workshop. How long has that been a part of your life, and how has it helped your career?

DEJ: I’ve belonged to the West Michigan Writers Workshop since January 2007, and it has, hands-down, been my best teacher. It’s a very talented group of writers who pull no punches. When I suck, they tell me I suck. (And sometimes I suck.) The group has helped me with every aspect of writing and continues, every week, to make me a better writer.

JKP: Am I correct, that veteran private-eye novelist Loren D. Estleman encouraged you to pen your first book?

DEJ: I met Loren when I was just beginning to research The Detroit Electric Scheme. Not a word written--or even a very good idea what I was going to write--and I asked him if he would read some of the book when I was ready. He agreed. I sent him the first three chapters in November 2008 and got a wonderful letter back from him that included a blurb comparing the book to Les Miserables.

Once I finished the book in May 2009, I asked if he could recommend an agent, and he turned me on to the agent who represented me for my first two books. Without Loren, I don’t know that I would be published.

JKP: Were you intending all along to write historical mysteries?

DEJ: (Embarrassing moment here). The first book I wrote, in 2006-2007, was a religious satire. How I thought I might get that published is a historical mystery to me now. I think it was something I just had to get out of my system.

When I couldn’t get an agent for that book, I re-evaluated my plan. I have always loved great historical fiction like that written by E.L. Doctorow and William Kennedy, as well as smart crime fiction by people like Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley. I thought if I could combine the two, I might just have something. So I tried it and haven’t stopped.

JKP: Can you pinpoint the source of your interest in history?

DEJ: When I was in elementary school I read every biography and historical story I could find. I don’t know what it was about history that grabbed me, but I’ve always loved it.

In adulthood, when I began reading E.L. Doctorow, I got an insight into the psyches of people from 100 years ago, and that coupled with the state of the U.S. at that time made it my favorite historical period. The turn of the 20th century was when the U.S. became what it is today, for better and for worse. The turmoil was incredible--crime, poverty, foreign relations, immigration--everything was changing. What better time could there be to write about?

JKP: Your early press materials made a point of mentioning that you are the grandson of a former vice president of Checker Motors Corporation, a famous producer of taxicabs. When did you begin to find that ancestral connection interesting? And have you always had a fascination with the auto industry?

DEJ: The Detroit Electric Scheme came from my desire to write a book set in a big city at the dawn of the 20th century. I lived in Grand Rapids at the time, and it was two and a half hours [from there] to Detroit and three and a half hours to Chicago. I also had a daughter living in Detroit. (And she actually lived and worked in the city, not in a suburb, as is normally the case when someone says they live in Detroit.)

Cars mostly came from the first two choices. (I could have written The Michigan Stove Scheme or The Peninsular (Train) Car Scheme, but they just didn’t have the same snap.) I’ve always liked cars, but I had never been an enthusiast. The more research I did into Detroit during the time period, the more convinced I became that a book set against the early electric-car industry was my best bet. I have since learned a great deal about cars.

But to answer the question, it wasn’t until I was writing the book that I really thought about the connection. Now, of course, I wish I were able to go back in time and ask my grandpa a whole lot of questions.

JKP: Why did you choose, as your protagonist, Will Anderson, the son of the owner of an electric-car company?

DEJ: I wanted a protagonist with a great deal of pressure on him to succeed. Being the namesake of a very successful man, Will was born into a pressure cooker. It also solved a problem I was having early on. [The Detroit Electric Car Scheme] begins with Will being framed for murder but not apprehended by the police. If he were an ordinary guy, it would have been impossible for me to weave in the real story of the demise of the electric car without the dreaded “info dump,” because a real normal guy would have spent the whole book trying to save his own ass, instead of continuing with his work, keeping up appearances, and trying to save face for the family. His familial and social stature let me include the work he was doing and the history he was experiencing, without artificially fitting it into the story.

JKP: And if I remember correctly, Will’s father in your books, William C. Anderson, was a genuine historical figure--who was blessed with two daughters, but no sons. Why did you decide to endow the elder Anderson with a fictional male offspring, rather than simply create a whole imaginary family around your protagonist?

DEJ: I wanted to tell the story of the rise and fall of the early electric-car business as a real story. Personally, I’d always rather read novels that are set in real history than in made-up history. I think most people like to learn while being entertained, and I wanted to tell the story of a prototypical Detroit company of 100 years ago.

JKP: Have you heard from any of the real William C. Anderson's descendents, commenting on your choice to use him in your books?

DEJ: No, I haven’t located any of the Andersons, nor have they contacted me. However, at the introduction of Motor City Shakedown at Greenfield Village last year, I met Tony Gianolla’s great-grandson and -daughter. Leo was the first-born son of the first-born son and wore Tony’s ring, gold with a huge diamond. (For those who don’t know, Tony Gianolla led the family gang, which ruled the Detroit underworld from 1913 to 1919.) I asked them, joking, if they were going to whack me for writing the book. His sister laughed and said, “No, of course not.” Leo gave me an even stare and said, deadpan, “She said it, not me.” (He was joking, right?)

I have a friend who knows one of the descendents of the Adamo family, though I have not been introduced. My only strong Detroit Electric relative was the grandson of George Bacon, who was the chief engineer for DE during the years it thrived. I got to look at the old brochures and photos that he’d saved, and he shared his reminiscences about his grandfather. It was a nice time.

JKP: Could you imagine yourself living in the Detroit of a previous decade? At what time would you most like to have lived there, and what would you have liked to be doing?

DEJ: Yes, during the period I’m writing about, so long as I get to be rich. No matter where you lived, it was no fun to be poor in 1912, and there was virtually no middle class. But for the 1 percent, life was good! (And if I have to be poor, the time period doesn’t much matter. Life was painful, whether it was 1812, 1912, or 2012. I guess I’d pick 2012, because I could have a flush toilet.)

I waited until I felt I could see, smell, and hear 1910 Detroit before I started writing The Detroit Electric Scheme. It was an amazing place, full of confidence and enthusiasm, and brimming with money. Immigrants flocked to Detroit because any job beat no job, which was their alternative at home, but for most the land of milk and honey didn’t live up to the hype.

JKP: Is your personal library now plump with Detroit history books? And is there one among them that you think has done the best job of educating you about the way that city grew up?

DEJ: Yes--piles of books on Detroit. Richard Bak is my favorite Detroit history author. He has written a number of outstanding books on Detroit history, my favorite being Henry and Edsel: The Creation of the Ford Empire [2003], which offers great insight into the relationship between Henry Ford and his son.

JKP: What’s your opinion of modern-day Detroit? Do you think there’s hope that the city can find new significance in the 21st century?

DEJ: I have hope for the city. The mayor, Dave Bing, is making the kinds of changes that are necessary for sustained growth, and there are an awful lot of people who are passionate about the city and are working for its success. Detroit was great. In order to be great again, it will take a great deal of work and a great deal of time, but I think it could happen.

JKP: Your first couple of books are replete with information about automobile technology and operations. How did you come by such an education? Or were you simply making it all up as you went along?

DEJ: Mostly, I was learning it as I went along. I live in fear of people shooting holes in my history, so I research everything carefully. Of course, that’s not to say I’ve gotten everything right, but so far I have not had a fact challenged that I couldn’t defend. I know they’re out there, but nobody’s caught me yet.

You’ll note that I stay away from engineering even though Will has a degree from the University of Michigan. I don’t even know enough about engineering to be dangerous. I chose it for him because I think that’s what a boy in his position would have chosen to try to live up to expectations, which is a key motivator for Will.

JKP: Did you drive some of those old autos to get the details right?

DEJ: I did. I got to drive a Model T and have ridden in a Detroit Electric, and I’m really glad I did both. The Model T operates with a different logic than the cars of today, and I don’t think I’d have gotten it had I not driven one. I made sure to take lots of notes, which I refer to if I’ve got any extended travels for Will in Edsel Ford’s old “Torpedo.”

Through serendipity, I met a man in Ann Arbor named Jack Beatty who had restored a 1916 Detroit Electric coupe, and he was kind enough to take my wife and I out on the town in it, so I got to experience not only how it drives, but the stares he gets while driving it. Jack also trailered the DE to Kalamazoo for my first reading, which was great fun. He’s just one of the wonderful people I’ve met on this journey.

Eloise Hospital in 1911.

JKP: Much of Detroit Breakdown takes place at Eloise Hospital, located near the site of today’s Detroit Metro Airport. How accurate is your portrayal of that facility?

DEJ: I think I gave an accurate portrayal, with a few caveats. One is that “my” Eloise is a sort of composite--parts of the depiction, such as the tunnels, are a key part of the legend of Eloise and were very real, but they weren’t built until after 1912. I moved the buildings around a bit to fit my story as well. The psychiatric treatments, such as they were, were accurate for the time period other than Will’s radiation therapy, but I thought that was an important inclusion. During this time period, Eloise Hospital was pioneering the use of radiation treatment for tuberculosis.

As I dug into the story of radiation at this time, I found that it was considered practically a cure-all. People were buying water coolers lined with uranium so they would receive the health benefits. Radioactive hot springs were all the rage for spas, and a device called a spinthariscope was a hit at parties. It was similar to a kaleidoscope, other than that the little tube you held to your eye contained a piece of radium, and you could watch the brilliant blue light show as the radium deteriorated, emitting radon gas. It would make for a lively party, all right.

I think the overall picture I painted of Eloise was fair. The attitude toward mental patients in those days was essentially to lock them up and forget them. The Progressive Era, which ran from the 1890s to 1920s, was the beginning of an awakening in this country to the plight of the less fortunate, which conflicted with the jail- or punishment-oriented treatments, which culminated in lobotomies a few decades later.

JKP: I was a bit surprised that Will would agree so quickly to being admitted to an insane asylum. He really has become something of a masochistic daredevil over the course of these books, hasn’t he?

DEJ: It would seem that way, I guess, but my thoughts are that he still feels so much guilt over the sins he’s committed against Elizabeth that he’s willing to do almost anything for her. Living in her service has become his comfort zone. Life at work has been difficult, it’s questionable whether he still has any friends, and he feels so much pressure from his parents (although they don’t really voice it) that becoming her knight errant is the only way he can be happy. This is how he shows his love, and at the heart of it, Will is a hopeless romantic hopelessly in love with a woman he sees as perfect.

JKP: I’m glad you mentioned those dark elements of the relationship between Will and Elizabeth, which are hardly limited to the fact that he essentially raped her in the first book. How has their association survived so many hardships?

DEJ: Will and Elizabeth understand each other. She is certainly the “better” person, but she sees the good in Will and understands that he always tries to do the right thing, even though he often fails. The state of their relationship moving from Motor City Shakedown to Detroit Breakdown is continually improving. I’m about three-quarters of the way through the fourth book in the series right now, though, and it looks like they might be in for a rough patch--maybe a really rough patch. We’ll see how it turns out.

(Left) An early advertisement for the Detroit Electric.

JKP: One of the things that happens to Will during his confinement in Eloise Hospital, is that he’s subjected to pretty frightening radiation treatments. Do you see the results of that risky experience playing into future novels?

DEJ: In the next book, Will is going to have to deal with some problems from the radiation but not anything debilitating. He will certainly have future problems, but it usually takes a long time for radiation poisoning to cripple a person. Madame Curie began experimenting with uranium in the late 19th century and lived until 1934. Will’s exposure was 15 years later, so I’d expect he’s still got a ways to go.

And what are the odds against him dying from a disease? I think he’s probably going down shooting. (But not for a long time.)

JKP: Another feature of Detroit Breakdown is its links to Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. How did you decide to use that association in Breakdown? Are you a big fan of Leroux’s haunting yarn? And when did you first discover the book?

DEJ: I have mixed emotions about the cultural phenomenon that The Phantom has become. Leroux’s novel is odd and interesting, but it’s not a great book. And I have to admit I’m not a big fan of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, either. However, I thought it would be fun to include some literary history in Detroit Breakdown, and the notion of the patients being certain a “phantom” is murdering their fellows sets up some interesting possibilities. When you’re in an asylum, whose word is reliable? The doctors, nurses, and orderlies are all likely to have an agenda, and the patients are generally in an asylum for a reason.

The phantom is an absurd idea, particularly so when set up in an asylum, and I enjoyed visualizing readers not only evaluating clues from The Phantom, but also trying to figure out which, if any, of the mental patients are sane and credible.

When I began writing Detroit Breakdown, I listened to the novel The Phantom of the Opera on my phone (not a phrase I envisioned using 10 years ago), along with dozens of others. My intent was strictly to research words or phrases used at the time that have gone out of use. The thought struck me to include some of the storyline, and it worked.

JKP: The narration in Detroit Breakdown is split Will and Elizabeth. This hasn't been your customary presentation. Is the change a recognition of Elizabeth's greater role in the series, and do you intend to continue with that split-perspective technique?

DEJ: I was faced with either writing Detroit Breakdown in third-person or using two narrators, because Will was going to be stuck in the asylum and some of the investigation had to be done elsewhere. No one, including me, was confident I could write a credible female voice, as I had never tried before, so it was touch and go for a while. Once I worked out the kinks, I was able to write in a significantly different style for Elizabeth, which I thought worked well, but I still heaved a sigh of relief when Daniela Rapp, my editor at St. Martin’s [Press], wrote me back after first reading the finished product.

This is what she wrote (and she is not a caps/exclamation mark kind of person):


And this was the best review I could get, particularly from Daniela, who is a wonderfully insightful reader and editor, and has helped me keep my career moving in the right direction.

The fourth book in the series will be written entirely from Will’s perspective, but I’d like to do another split between them. Maybe that’s book five.

JKP: With each new title in your series, I expect you will finally bring the storied Edsel Ford--who you clearly find interesting, and introduced into The Detroit Electric Scheme--closer to the center of your plot. Yet he’s even further out of the storytelling arc in Detroit Breakdown than he was in the first two books. Why do you find him an intriguing character, and will he ever become a central player in your fiction?

DEJ: Yes, I’m a big fan of Edsel Ford. Earlier, I mentioned Rick Bak’s book, Henry and Edsel. That book gave me insight into a man who has gotten short shrift from history. Edsel was intelligent, creative, artistic, and philanthropic, all while under the thumb of Scrooge McDuck, otherwise known as Henry Ford, a man who would not win any “Father of the Year” competitions.

One of my goals with The Detroit Electric Scheme was to make a small contribution to improving Edsel’s image. He’s remembered as either his father’s lackey or the namesake of that god-awful car--if he’s remembered at all. Microsoft apparently doesn’t remember him or the car, since every time I type his name it gets underlined in red.

As to the other question, I don’t have a good answer. I struggle with how far from the historical record to take a real person. I see a lot of “famous-people-solving-mysteries” novels, and I don’t have anything against them, it’s just not what I want to write. Edsel will remain a character in my books for the foreseeable future, but I don’t think he will become a central figure. But who knows? I’m never quite sure what direction my stories will take.

JKP: Are you confining yourself to the Will Anderson series, or do you have other works in mind to pen somewhere down the road?

DEJ: I have another historical series that I’m starting to flesh out, which I think I’ll start once I finish the fourth book. I have what I think is a great idea for Will Anderson #5, but I feel like I need to evict Will, Elizabeth, and the rest of the characters from their apartment in my brain and let another set of people move in. I’m sure I’ll go back to Will’s story later on, but he deserves some much-needed rest before I put him through anything else.

JKP: Can you at least tell us the time period and location of the action in that prospective second series?

DEJ: I’m still figuring out the plan for the next series, but I think it will be set in Chicago sometime between 1870 and 1900. I have an unusual profession for my protagonist that I’m going to keep under wraps for now. It’s going to be another mystery series, and it will certainly be dark, but in some ways it will be more traditional than the Will Anderson books (by which I mean it will be primarily episodic, as opposed to my current series, which could be read as one very long book).

I never know what will happen with a story when I start from scratch, so it could end up being set just about anywhere at any time, depending on what grabs me. But if I had to say now, it’s Chicago, late 19th century.

JKP: What do you think is your greatest weakness as a novelist?

DEJ: Plotting, even though I think it’s one of the things I’m best known for. I’ve never been a chess player, because I don’t have the ability to see future moves and plan for that. My wife is a much better guesser than I on what’s going to happen in a book or movie. It takes me a long time to plot a story, because I have to work backward and keep layering and layering. I’m proud of the plots I’ve written, probably more so because they were so much work.

JKP: Finally, what’s the one question you always wish an interviewer would ask you, but nobody ever does?

DEJ: How did I get to be so cool? Why am I so good-looking? Actually, I’m always impressed when an interviewer asks surprising questions, as you have in this interview. Occasionally I get asked questions that really make me think and sometimes provide illumination as to why I write what I do. So much of the process comes from the subconscious mind that I don’t always know my own motives.

I can’t think of a question. So you’ve done your job well.

* * *

WANT A COPY OF DETROIT BREAKDOWN? If, after learning about D.E. Johnson’s literary efforts, you would like to have his third historical mystery for your very own, you’re in luck. Publisher Minotaur Books has four copies of Detroit Breakdown that it has agreed to send to fortunate Rap Sheet readers.

To participate in this drawing, all you need do is e-mail your name and snail-mail address to And be sure to write “Detroit Breakdown Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Tuesday, September 11. Winners will be chosen at random, and their names will be listed on this page the following day. Sorry, but this drawing is open only to residents of the United States and Canada.

What are you waiting for? Get your entry in now!

No comments: