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Friday, October 12, 2012

Detroit Breakdown


Detroit Breakdown is the third book in D.E. Johnson’s Will Anderson/Elizabeth Hume series. The book (following The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown) is set in 1912 Detroit, and focuses on fictional events inside the real-life Eloise Insane Asylum located just outside the city. 

Elizabeth is shocked to learn that her cousin, a patient in the asylum, is being accused of the murders of several of his fellow patients.  Each of the victims has been strangled by a “Punjab lasso,” the weapon-of-choice of the Phantom of the Opera, himself – and Robert has been found leaning over the body of the latest to suffer that fate.  Elizabeth is certain that her cousin is not a murderer, and she is determined to prove his innocence.  And Will, wanting desperately to prove his love for Elizabeth, decides to investigate the murders from the inside – by having himself committed to the asylum as a mental patient.

Elizabeth, with the help of Detroit Police Detective Riordan, also plays a key role in the investigation.  Not only does she penetrate the walls of the asylum as a volunteer worker, she and the detective follow all leads pointing outside Eloise.  But when Will’s scheme is exposed, and he finds himself at the mercy of a doctor who has everything to lose if exposed, the dual investigations become a race against the clock.

Author Dan Johnson, a native of northern Michigan, is both an amateur historian and the grandson of a former Vice President of Checker Motors.  He combines his love of history and his keen appreciation for early automotive pioneers to create a noirish setting for 1912 Detroit.  The city’s streets are filled with competing horse-drawn buggies, electric cars, and gasoline-powered vehicles – while its alleys are often filled with huge, stinking mounds of horse manure and garbage.  Street crime is rampant, cops are as crooked as those they chase, and insane asylums are places where the inmates are often no crazier than the guards who abuse them on a regular basis.

D.E. Johnson
One might be tempted to say that not all that much has changed in Detroit in the past 100 years, that today’s problems are very much like those of 1912 Detroit.  What Johnson makes clear, however, is that it was much more difficult to be poor in 1912 Detroit than it is in the Detroit of today.  Then, the wealthy lived a spectacular lifestyle while everyone else, the vast majority of the city’s population, struggled just to keep their families fed and clothed.  Those were heady days for those who had the money to enjoy the beautiful restaurants, theaters, parks, and other luxuries the city offered.  Johnson vividly captures both lifestyles in Detroit Breakdown and shows what might happen when those two worlds even briefly intersected.

Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume (even Detective Riordan, for that matter) already share a lot of history by the time Detroit Breakdown begins.  Although Johnson makes a valiant effort to bring new readers up to speed, I suspect that those having read the first two books in the series will have a much better appreciation of characters and motivations than readers jumping in at book-three as I did.  That is not to say that Detroit Breakdown does not work well as a standalone novel, because it does – only that the experience is likely to be a much richer one for readers more intimately familiar with the events of The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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