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Historical Mysteries

The Detroit Electric Scheme, D.E. Johnson, Minotaur, $24.99.


Set in Detroit in 1910, this is a dark story of the automobile industry in it’s earliest days, framed by the narrative of Will Anderson.  Will is the son of the owner of an electric car company; at the time, electric cars were popular with women, as they were easy to start.  The introduction of the self starter towards the end of the novel signals the death knell for the electric car and the rise of the gasoline engine.  Will himself is a mess, and his situation becomes dire when he discovers the body of his former girlfriend’s fiancee horribly mutilated by an hydraulic press in the works of his father’s company.  Leaving evidence all over the place - his hat, his name in a log book where it shouldn’t be - it fast becomes clear that Will is going to be the prime suspect in the man’s murder.

Will’s life keep careening out of control.  He discovers his ex is a heroin addict; he’s blackmailed by whoever found the bloody clothes he tried to discard the night of the murder; and when he asks for his neighbor, Wesley’s, help, Wesley is severely beaten for his troubles.  Relentlessly beaten, thrown back in jail, released, and held captive what’s also apparent is that Will is in the grip of alcohol as much as his ex is in the grip of heroin. 

This book was unexpected.  In a typical historical novel, there would be more detail of life as it was lived.  Johnson is instead concerned, in an interesting way, with business and the way it was conducted at the turn of the century, specifically, of course, the automobile industry.  He captures the raw excitement and uncertainly of an exploding industry, and makes clear the creativity that was involved in setting into motion the giants we know as Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

You’ll be rooting for Will as he heads down his path of destruction, and along the way he discovers he can be friends with a homosexual; he helps his ex kick her heroin habit; and he himself kicks his drinking habit, though he realizes it will be difficult for him socially.  There was only one plot turn I was able to figure out; the actual denouement was quite a surprise, and the ending is as bleak as the rest of the book.  He reminds me a bit of Mitchell Bartoy, who wrote two excellent books about post WWII Detroit, though he’s slightly less bleak.  I’d be interested to see where he takes Will next.  It’s also interesting in today’s context: the resurgence of the electric car and the semi decline of the giants.  This is a sharp, unique and original novel.


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