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Historical Mysteries

Motor City Shakedown, D.E. Johnson, Minotaur, $24.99.

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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.

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The Deception at Lyme, Carrie Bebris, Tor/Tom Doherty, $22.99.

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Carrie Bebris' charming series following Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett and her Mr. Darcy after their marriage also patterns itself on Austen's novels. The latest installment is based on Persuasion, and the delightful Anne Elliott from that novel makes an appearance here. What Bebris really utilizes, however, is the setting of Lyme and it's naval background for her story.

In Austen's time, of course, England was the top sea power in the world, at a time when ships and shipping were the only way of moving goods overseas. Being a naval officer was an important and respected job, and when one turns up with his eye on Darcy's sister, Georgiana, in this novel, it's no surprise either that Georgiana responds to the handsome officer's friendly overtures, or that her protective brother looks at him askance.

The Darcys are in Lyme to meet with a naval officer who is delivering the effects of Darcy's cousin, who had been killed in a sea battle. Before that can happen, as they are strolling by the sea with their young daughter, Lily-Anne, they come across a woman who has apparently fallen off the sea wall, and worse, she's pregnant. I'm not sure what other scene a writer could include in a novel that has more inherent drama that childbirth, but in any case, it's a very gripping way for Bebris to begin her novel, and it allows her to introduce the character threads she'll use throughout the rest of the book.

Bebris' books are mysteries but they closely follow Jane Austen's pattern, and as P.D. James has famously written, Austen's books were themselves essentially mysteries, with a surprising secret at the heart of each of the books. While Austen's secrets didn't involve deaths but usually young women gone wrong or led astray, she was incredibly skillful at structuring her narratives so that the secret was tightly wrapped within the story, and the way it was teased out as the book unfolded kept readers guessing. Bebris shares this talent of Austen's, as well as channeling some of her tone.

In this book, the action soon centers on the pregnant and injured woman, who dies but leaves behind a live infant. As the secrets of her past and the child's parentage are unveiled a bit at a time, the story of the woman and her ties to various living members of the community of Lyme are made clear. The story also centers on Darcy's sister, Georgiana, who has not one, but two, suitors. One is the aforementioned naval officer, Lt. St. Clair, and a dashing baronet, Sir Laurence.

Bebris includes some lighter period details, such as the way women went for a swim in 1815, as well as details of naval battles and ships in general that add to both the excitement and texture of the book. She's also created a very clever mystery, one that had me surprised at several points (and a reason I'm not spoiling the story by giving any more away of the plot). Bebris has managed to make her book a very graceful homage to Austen while at the same time crafting a satisfying historical mystery.

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Murder in Burnt Orange, Jeanne M. Dams, Perseverance Press, $15.95.

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Having owned a bookstore for almost 20 years, the number of authors I’ve seen go in and out of print are a number almost too high to count. Often, talent and skill have little to do with publishing success, as the number of out of print authors that I personally feel are excellent writers is also a high number. Jeanne Dams is one of these. She’s the author of the popular (for our customers, anyway) Dorothy Martin mysteries, that were dropped long ago by her publisher, but she was writing another series at the same time, featuring a Swedish maid in 1905 South Bend, Indiana. This series, too, was dropped, but found another home with Perseverance Press, which could be another word for Jeanne’s tenacious writing career. While the Dorothy books had a larger audience, I’ve always been a big fan both of Jeanne and of her series set in South Bend.

The central character of the South Bend series, Hilda Johansson, was a maid for the Studebaker family. She is now married to Patrick Cavanaugh, now a manger of the Malloy department store in town. In this novel, she is also heavily pregnant and not dealing well with the fact that her pregnancy ties her to her home and the fact that the heat is unrelenting and making her even more uncomfortable. The mystery is a complicated one involving railroads, unions, strikebreakers, and a series of train “accidents” and fires. The most close to home death and fire occurs right in the Malloy store, and seems to be related to the Malloy’s ne’er do well son, Clancy. While Hilda has been in a fog of depression, refusing to eat, the request of both her mother and Patrick’s aunt that she try and get to the bottom of what’s going on re-engages her in her life, and she begins to utilize a network of errand boys, maids, and other service workers, who see much but are unnoticed by the kind of society Hilda now is a sometimes uncomfortable part of.

Hilda and Patrick’s relationship is a real strength of the books, as their communication keeps their marriage healthy, even though Patrick worries about some of the danger Hilda often seems to find herself in. So are the network of relationships that Dams has taken care to establish through the course of the novels, the ones with Hilda’s family, with Patrick’s, and with some of the other people in the town of South Bend. As Hilda struggles through the hot summer with her pregnancy and her problem, she also becomes a source of comfort for Patrick’s aunt and uncle as they undergo their own troubles.

As is usual in an historical novel, the historical background is an essential part of the story, but the characters and the story - Dams is an excellent narrative storyteller - are front and center, and as you get toward the end of the book, the pages are flipping quickly as you are as eager as Hilda to discover what exactly happened. It’s fascinating to see the newly created unions from the viewpoint of someone who lived in 1905; it’s not a clear cut picture, but instead a thoughtful and believable one, not polluted by the attitudes of a reader in 2011. It’s a rare historical novelist who can pull that off, and Dams does it with aplomb, while also delivering a very enjoyable mystery.

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