Motor City Burning

Written by Bill Morris
Review by Ellen Keith

Motor City Burning, set in Detroit in the spring and summer of 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has two protagonists: black Willie Bledsoe, a Tuskegee student turned activist turned burned-out busboy, and white Frank Doyle, a police detective determined to solve a cold case, the murder of a woman in the summer riots of 1967.

Morris’s novel works both as a mystery and a fascinating study of this particular time and place, made a little more poignant (a word both Bledsoe and Doyle would scorn) by Detroit’s recent bankruptcy. For Bledsoe, the summer of 1968 is the Detroit Tigers, dating a receptionist for Motown, and navigating his employment at a country club. He also tries to write his memoirs of his time with “Snick” (Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee) and come to terms with how he helped his Vietnam vet brother run guns. Doyle, a lifetime Detroit resident, lives in his childhood home and talks over his cases with his dead father. He doggedly follows leads in Helen Hull’s death, and they bring him to Bledsoe. Both men are compelling characters, which made me anxious about their inevitable meeting. I wanted Doyle to solve his case and Bledsoe to be innocent. No spoilers here, though. This is an excellent read for a portrait of Detroit that is full of affection without misplaced nostalgia. Put on some Motown music and enter into the past.