Motor City Shakedown
In 1911 the city of Detroit, heart of the nascent automobile industry, is plunged into a violent gang war, as rival mobs try to infiltrate and control the car companies. Will Anderson, hero of Johnson’s earlier novel The Detroit Electric Scheme, stands against the powerful criminals behind the violence, while struggling against his personal demons, and trying to recover the love of well-bred and brave Elizabeth Hume.
All this happens against the backdrop of the industrial city. Johnson’s research leads to a sharp-eyed reconstruction of the time, and especially the new world of the motorcar, just now winding its way in through the horse-drawn wagons and handcarts of the streets: how hard they were to start, how novel it was to tear along at thirty miles an hour. Other details resonate: the desperate misery and hope of the immigrants, the murderous gangsters who operate out of two modest neighborhood grocery stores across the street from each other. A gang of street boys, who will eventually become the notorious Purple Gang, kill people for cigarette money.
Johnson’s narrative clips along at a good pace, as Will and Elizabeth outwit their enemies and maneuver them into ambushes, although it’s a little hard to imagine a genteel girl like Elizabeth carrying a pistol and actually shooting somebody. The major problem with the book is actually its mopey hero, whose self-pitying voice takes the edge off the narrative. “Stop bein’ such a pussy,” somebody says to him. My sentiments exactly.