By Brett King
Compelling from the beginning, D. E. Johnson opens his debut novel with the discovery of a grisly homicide. Will Anderson, the protagonist of The Detroit Electric Scheme is a man haunted with a dark and vivid past who manages a department in his father’s electric car company.
On a bitter November night in 1910, he discovers the body of a rival crushed inside a hydraulic roof press. Escaping from police, Anderson becomes the prime suspect in a dangerous mystery set during the early rise of Detroit’s automotive industry, a time filled with promise and corruption.
The Detroit Electric Scheme has generated critical acclaim including a starred review inBooklist: “The surprise ending leaves you gasping and shaking your head at Johnson’s masterful plotting and the menacing tension that forces otherwise good characters to behave despicably. Every bit as powerful as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, this gem of a debut showcases an author to watch very closely.”
Dan lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his family where he is working on the sequel toThe Detroit Electric Scheme. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about broad influences that went into the creation of his new book as well as his thoughts about writing.
A history of alcoholism and regret colors your protagonist’s background. Did you encounter any challenges in developing the darker edges of Anderson’s character?
More of Will than I’d care to admit comes from me. I didn’t have to mine that deeply to come up with his personality defects.
What went into your decision to set your debut novel in Detroit in 1910?
Detroit was an amazing city at the turn of the 20th century. Growth was exponential as immigrants from other parts of the country and the world flooded in for the manufacturing jobs that were being developed. In fact, only 10% of Detroit’s 1910 residents were born in Michigan. The automotive industry was in its infancy, and Detroit was just beginning to separate itself as the leading city for car manufacture.
Unknown to many people, the electric car industry was thriving in 1910, and Detroit Electric was in the process of usurping Baker Electric from Cleveland as the number one electric car manufacturer in the country. They were an ambitious company in an ambitious city in an ambitious time–a perfect backdrop for murder!
And, of course, the interest today in electric cars played a huge role in my decision to focus my story here. People should understand what happened to the early electrics as we look to the future of transportation.
At one time, your grandfather served as vice president of Checker Motors. Did his involvement in the automotive industry shape or influence the direction of your book?
It actually didn’t. I never visited my grandfather at work, and he didn’t really talk about it. But I was in a Checker sales brochure when I was maybe five or six years old. We got to play with a racetrack in the back of a station wagon. Cool. I’ve gotten much more interested in Checker in the last few years as I’ve really dug into the early car business. I’ve found some interesting stories from its past that might need to be told someday.
Your novel brings to life figures who were critical in the automotive industry including the Dodge Brothers and Edsel Ford as well as Vito Adamo, Detroit’s first recorded mob boss. Did you find it easier or more difficult to write for actual historical figures compared with the fictional characters in your book?
The answer is “Yes.” I found it both easier and more difficult to write about historical characters for different reasons. On the positive side, people like the Dodge brothers are beautiful because it would be hard to create more interesting characters, and Edsel Ford has become a personal project for me. He was a very bright, artistic, and loyal man who has been tossed into the dustbin of history because of the abuse his father heaped on him. Vito Adamo has had very little written about him, but was the man to first control a significant percentage of the rackets in Detroit. I’ve taken more liberty with his character, since there is little really known about his personality (outside of his being a killer and mob boss, which I suppose says quite a lot).
The tough part of using real-life characters is that they force me into keeping a straight line when I might want to zigzag. I can’t very well kill off the Dodge brothers (though it would probably have been a popular move at the time) or put Edsel into some sort of dire straits that doesn’t jive with history. Fortunately I was able to plan out the timeline with this book and sequels to keep myself within the historical record. (Although, as far as I know, the real Edsel didn’t help to solve any murders.)
Detroit has undergone substantial economic and social challenges in the century since the events depicted in your novel. If your characters could take a look at the city and the automotive industry in 2010, what would be their reaction?
Wow. That’s my reaction, and I think it would be theirs as well. My characters would be shocked at the size of the city as well as the condition. Still, Detroit, or any large city for that matter, has always had an unsavory underbelly that history seems to gloss over. Crime was rampant in many parts of Detroit, with murders reported in the newspapers at least weekly (and this was with less than 500,000 residents). Poverty was a huge problem in the immigrant community, and many of the social issues of the 21st century were there at the beginning of the 20th as well.
The car industry would be pretty puzzling as well. Even though the assembly line had been used by car manufacturers prior to Henry Ford “inventing” it in 1914, the robotics used today would look like science fiction. Heck, they do look like science fiction.
You’re a self-proclaimed history buff. Is there a favorite era or historical setting that captures your interest?
This is it. I love the story of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. was being shaped, for better and for worse, into the country it is today. We were waking up to being a world power and really started flexing our muscles–in a lot of places we didn’t really belong (in my opinion).
The people of the era faced many of the same obstacles we do today–a volatile and unpredictable economy, crime, social concerns, and interestingly enough, the speed of life. The telegraph was cited as being a major reason for the late nineteenth century outbreak of neurasthenia (otherwise known as “Americanitis”), which today would probably be classified as depression. Information overload was a big problem. Just imagine what they’d think now.
Can you tell us about the next book in the series?
The backdrop for The Detroit Electric Scheme is the early electric car industry. I wove the reasons the industry thrived–and eventually succumbed–into the story line. Unfortunately for my protagonist, the resolution of this story leaves him with some seriously unfinished business, mostly involving the Black Hand, led by Vito Adamo. The sequel, tentatively titled Motor City Shakedown, chronicles the first mob war in Detroit, as the Adamo gang battles it out with the Gianolla gang. The teenage Bernstein brothers, later of the Purple Gang, add a little color (and firepower). Unfortunately for Will and his associates, they find themselves right in the middle of the war.
I spent a lot of time digging through the newspaper archives of the Detroit Free Press, News, and Herald to come up with this story. The mob in 1910 hadn’t yet developed into a major power. It took prohibition to do that. But they were frequently splashed on the front pages of the newspapers in the early part of the 1910s as they murdered each other, often in a very gruesome fashion.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
A typical writing weekday for me is to get up at 5:00, write for a couple of hours, and go to work. When I get home I’ll put in another hour or two. Weekends are for writing–all day, all weekend. Good thing I love to do it.
Writing has been a long-standing passion, but you’ve shared that you hit a midlife crisis before realizing that you needed to become serious about a career in fiction. Did a particular event inspire your decision to seek publication?
No, it really was just an accumulation of years of frustration that got me to make a change in my life. I sold a business, which gave me a couple of years to do nothing but work on my writing. I spent 60 hours a week taking classes, reading books, doing exercises, and writing. Unfortunately, the business went under while I was working onThe Detroit Electric Scheme, so I had to go out and find another job. (Fortunately, I found one I like.)
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
Two things, one philosophical and one practical:
Philosophical – Chase your dream. Don’t do what I did, which was to suppress my need to write. Believe me when I say that all it leads to is unhappiness. Do whatever you have to do to achieve your goals.
Practical – Find a critique group that isn’t afraid to tell you that you suck. Polite critique groups are not critique groups, they’re book clubs–and they are a waste of precious time that you can’t afford to waste.
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