By Jeff Ayers
Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume get caught up in the political turmoil over women’s suffrage in DETROIT SHUFFLE, the fourth book in D. E. Johnson’s critically acclaimed 1910s Detroit series
Will Anderson inadvertently breaks up a key suffrage rally when he thwarts a gunman set on killing his lover, Elizabeth Hume. No one else saw the man, and Elizabeth believes he hallucinated the entire incident, a side effect of the radium “treatment” he received at Eloise Hospital. She asks him to sit on the sidelines while she and her companions try to get the women’s suffrage amendment passed by Michigan voters.
Instead, Will sets out to protect Elizabeth and prove his sanity. Will’s nemesis, Sapphira Xanakis, contacts him with news of a conspiracy to defeat the amendment, led by Andrew Murphy, head of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. Against his better judgment, Will believes she is trying to help. The man she directs him to dies under suspicious circumstances. An old acquaintance of Will’s, who is working for the MLBA, is shot and killed in front of him. Still, no one believes Will, including his former ally, Detective Riordan, who not only is unwilling to help, but seems to have secrets of his own.
With new death threats against Elizabeth and the next rally only a few days away, Will has to unravel a complicated tapestry of blackmail, double-dealing, conspiracy, and murder—before the killer has his next chance to strike. Johnson’s immaculate plotting and high-tension writing make for a spellbinding read set in early twentieth-century Detroit.
D.E. Johnson talked to THE BIG THRILL:
What appeals to you about writing about Detroit in the early 20th century?
The biggest draw to me is the early 20th Century. It was such an explosive time in this country. We were coming of age as a world power, immigrants were flooding in by the millions, completely changing the social dynamic of the cities, the rich were incredibly wealthy and the poor were incredibly poor, and all this was held in the most tenuous balance. It was a time of turmoil in almost every way imaginable, which makes it an interesting time to write about.
I chose Detroit because it’s a city that has always fascinated me. During my entire lifetime, it’s been in decline. I was never able to experience the greatness and vitality of the city as it was, and I wanted to try to recreate that city, both for myself and for readers.
When I started researching the series, I was looking for a historical backdrop that was interesting and was representative of the city during the time period. Cars of course were a topic that came to mind, so I started there. When I came across all the information about the early electric cars, I knew I had found my backdrop – the rise and fall of the early electric car. Since, I have had numerous topics jump out at me – Detroit’s first mob war, its massive insane asylum, and political corruption. (In Detroit?!? Go figure.)
Could you discuss the origins of Will Anderson, Elizabeth Hume, and Thomas Riordan? Are somewhat based on real people or family who lived at the time?
Will is the fictional son of the real owner of Detroit Electric, the most successful electric car company in US history. His name was William C. Anderson, so I figured making Will a namesake would up the pressure on him to be a success, something he has difficulty with. (It doesn’t help that the real William Anderson had only daughters, adding more pressure to Will.) Beyond that, I wanted to him to have an addictive personality but be loyal and steadfast to a fault. In The Detroit Electric Scheme, both Will and Elizabeth were so wracked with guilt that it was their primary motivator through the book. They have developed more as characters since, and have really shown me who they are.
With Riordan, I needed a tough as nails cop, the kind of guy who could be your best friend or worst enemy, who also had a somewhat checkered past. He had to be Will’s nightmare throughout the first book, and Will has had to try to win him over during that last three, which is easier said than done.
What is more important to you: Story or character?
Character has to be number one, and even more so in a series. The story is a medium to develop and reveal character, to give the characters a way to show who they are. A great plot with cardboard characters makes for a book that will only be marginally interesting, whereas great characters can make a mediocre plot shine. If the characters are weak, a series reader will move on to something else.
That said, within the confines of a mystery, plot is critical. Someone gets killed, someone tries to figure out who did it, and does so at the end. That sums up the plot of pretty much every mystery ever written. The variations on that plotline and interesting and surprising characters are what makes a mystery good.
Did you see a series when you started writing THE DETROIT ELECTRIC SCHEME?
I actually had three stories in mind when I first pitched THE DETROIT ELECTRIC SCHEME, the third of which became MOTOR CITY SHAKEDOWN (book 2). The second in my mind had Will traveling to Panama, which St. Martin’s wasn’t enthusiastic about. They wanted him to stay rooted in Detroit. (And they are the boss!) DETROIT BREAKDOWN and DETROIT SHUFFLE have come from ideas I’ve picked up from research for the first two books.
How do you research the time period to make sure the details are accurate?
I find information anywhere I can. I’ve read dozens of books on Detroit history and the social, cultural, and political history of the early 20th Century. I’ve also pored over the Detroit newspapers of the day. Those are the basis of my research. I’ve picked up great info from the web as well (a particular shout-out to Google e-books for some strange titles I bet no one else has read). I’ve talked to a lot of people with family stories, particularly about Eloise Hospital (asylum).
Finally, one positive aspect (for me) about Detroit’s decline is that many of the old buildings are still there, though they may not be in great shape. After studying period photos, I wandered the streets to get a feel for what it must have been like, and to try to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel it. When I thought I was there, I started writing.
Will certainly knows how to pick his friends. What’s next for him and everyone else?
What? Will has great friends, the ones who are still alive anyway. In DETROIT SHUFFLE, an old high school friend of his resurfaces while Elizabeth is trying to win the vote for women. (Universal suffrage was on the Michigan ballot in 1912.) It doesn’t work out so well for the friend, or for the vote, for that matter. Detroit was beset by scandal that year, starting with the arrest of 17 aldermen for taking bribes and ending with a stolen election. Both of those stories play a big part in DETROIT SHUFFLE.
After this, I’m not sure what’s going to be in the cards for Will and Elizabeth. I have a fifth book in mind, but for at least the short term I’ve evicted them from my mind so that I could write something different. My current work in progress is a crime novel set in 1900’s Chicago, featuring Big Jim O’Leary, the “Gambler Boss iv th’ Yards.” This is something very different from the Detroit series, and it’s been great fun to write.
How have the pre-publication reviews been for DETROIT SHUFFLE?
The early reviews have been great, which is really gratifying. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and KIRKUS REVIEWS both gave DETROIT SHUFFLE starred reviews!
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY said, “Johnson does for early 20th-century Detroit what James Ellroy did for 1950s Los Angeles, creating a noxious brew of violence and corruption … The complex plot works, and the detection and action scenes combine for a thrilling read—the series’ best so far.”
KIRKUS’s comments included, “Will’s fourth is his best outing yet, packed with action by turns funny and chilling and deftly blended with the historical background.”
I don’t know about other authors, but I suspect they have the same worry that I do with every book: Is this the book that will sink me? I suppose that’s part of the reason I work so hard to create the best work I can. I want every book to be better than the last!
Dan is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood, but had to hit his midlife crisis to realize he should get serious about it. The early Twentieth Century, a time of big ambitions, huge achievements, and crushing poverty, holds a special fascination for him. Dan comes by his interest in automotive history honestly. His grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors, beginning work with Checker in 1924 and continuing until 1980.
After spending his childhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Dan graduated from Central Michigan University and owned a business in Grand Rapids, Michigan for many years. He is married, has three daughters, and once again lives near Kalamazoo. He’s currently working on a new series set in Chicago.
To learn more, please visit his website.