In perhaps the most disturbing research I've done lately, I was reading an Arcadia Publishing book called Detroit's Historic Hotels and Restaurants (which has been a good source of both for my new book).
Until I came to this: Under a picture of the Hotel Yorba, a transient hotel within spittin' distance of the Ambassador Bridge, still a Detroit fixture, the narration says this:
"'The Yorba' was the title of a song by the White Stripes, a British music group, in 2001."
Okay. That's not even the right name for the song. She should have stuck with the name of the hotel.
But the White Stripes? A British music group? Wow, now there's some research gone terribly wrong. Jack and Meg are as Detroit as the Tigers, Ford Motors, and crack. Of course, I could be the only person who listens to the White Stripes to ever read this book. (But if you are interested in old Detroit, there's some pretty cool stuff in it.)
July 25th, 2012 will be a major anniversary for Detroit.
July 25th marks the centennial anniversary of the arrests of nine Detroit aldermen and the secretary of the council committee in a fascinating, yet oh, so familiar, bribery "sting."
It seems the Wabash Railway Company wanted to have part of a street vacated so they could expand their freight warehouses. The City Council was opposed to this and delayed the action. Mayor William Thompson suspected the council was stalling in the hopes of obtaining bribes, so he enlisted the William Burns Detective Agency to investigate.
Burns was already considered "America's Sherlock Holmes" because he had, over the past few years, cracked a number of cases involving dynamiters, corrupt politicians, grifters, thieves, and murderers, seemingly with no useful clues. By 1912, the public had been made aware that Burns' incredible success came from his secret use of the dictograph, a device originally designed as a business intercom.
Dictographs had become so popular for eavesdropping that a model called a "Detective Dictograph" was being manufactured. The whole works fit into a case no larger than what people used to carry their "Pocket Kodaks" (cameras). Inside the case were a microphone, a long pair of wires, and a small amplifier connected to a telephone receiver. The microphone would be planted in a room and wired back to the amplifier in another room. With a detective dictograph, one of Burns' men would monitor and transcribe any incriminating conversations.
By 1912, Burns had moved, whenever possible, from a dictation-style dictograph to a "telegraphone," a high-quality recording device most often used for office dictation, which made convictions a snap. The best telegraphone at the time recorded with electromagnets onto wires that ran from one reel to another, similar to more recent tape recorders. The sound quality was good enough that voices were immediately recognizable, and made it impossible for defense attorneys to claim that someone was impersonating their client. The telegraphone would also record up to thirty minutes on a wire, which was much longer than could be accomplished on a record or cylinder recorder.
Burns had one of his detectives play the role of a Wabash representative, and he did an excellent job, forcing the aldermen to each come to his office and make their demands, which ranged from $200 to $1,000. Burns himself was there to arrest Thomas Glinnan, the president of the council, as he walked out of the "Wabash" office with $1,000 in his pocket. Faced with the telegraphonic evidence, Glinnan confessed, and the sting concluded as a complete success.
This is a case in which the mayor of Detroit concocted a sting operation detailed enough to use as a plot line in a movie. In doing so, he removed ten criminals from City Hall. Huzzah! (as they might have said at the time.)
Though I have no evidence of any scheme on Thompson's part, I wonder just how pure his motives were.
"Honest Tom" Glinnan, the president of the council who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, was in the midst of campaigning for a higher political office, which would be decided in the November election.
Glinnan was running against Thompson, for mayor.
On Thursday I had the most extraordinary experience. I spoke to about 400 students at Saginaw Swan Valley High School in an assembly, and then had about 50 attendees in a writing workshop on “point of view.” The fact that I survived with my pride intact might be the first clue that the school is something outside the ordinary, but there is so much more.
First of all, this school has a competitive writing team. No fooling.
But before I get to that, the assembly. I talked about following your dreams—to identify your passion, figure out a way to embrace that passion, and make it a key part of your life. So many people (like me) settle for trying to figure out how to make a living rather than making a life. After softening the audience up with a very inspirational video, I told them my story and gave them my advice for how they can make their lives what they want them to be. You could have heard a pin drop. The feedback I got afterwards is that the students took my story to heart.
My adult life is a pretty good cautionary tale. I drifted along in the current of life for thirty years, being miserable in the business world, while thinking I was a writer. I came very close to never finding out if I could really write or if it was just something that I was better at than most of the kids I went to school with. Through most of my life I had no motivation other than getting through the day. Finally I took charge of my life, took a big chance, and got what I’d wanted since I was a kid—I found out I was a writer, and better than that, an author.
This school treated me like a rock star! At Swan Valley (unlike most everywhere else), being an author is a big deal. The kids wanted to have their pictures taken with me. They fought over getting to escort me. And, best of all (and for the second time in the last two years), I had a high school student tell me I had changed her life. It doesn’t get much better than that.
On to what is different about their school, starting with the administration. I could not have been more impressed with Mat McRae, the principal, or Kay Wejrowski, the Library Media Specialist. They are passionate about literacy and writing, and it really shows. They run a variety of literacy programs, and, based on what I saw, the reading/writing culture must run all the way down to kindergarten.
In 2010 Swan Valley won a Citation of Excellence from the Library of Michigan. Last year, they were one of six winners nationally of the Follett Literacy Challenge. And, as I said, they have a competitive writing team.
Outside the context of our writing-challenged society, I would say that competing in writing is sort of missing the point. If we’re competing against anyone as writers, it should be against ourselves in our journey to become better at what we do. HOWEVER, inside the context, I think it’s an amazing idea. Schools need to find extraordinary ideas to help students embrace writing. It’s a big deal at Swan Valley that their writing team won last year’s conference championship in writing.
Writing … is a big deal. Who knew?
I was excited to learn this weekend that Motor City Shakedown was a winner of the 2012 Michigan Notable Book award. It's a great honor to be included in a list with Steve Hamilton (one of the best mystery writers anywhere) and Bonnie Jo Campbell (one of the best writers anywhere). This makes me two for two - The Detroit Electric Scheme won the award in 2011.
Copy and paste this web address to see the complete list:
I'm a little over a week into the first rewrite of Detroit Breakdown, the book I'm working on for a Fall 2012 release, and I'm having a great deal of fun. An awful lot of writers tell me how much they hate rewriting. For that matter, I've heard a lot of them say they hate writing, which is really puzzling to me.
There's a podcast called the Nerdist Writers Series, which is a TV writers panel discussion about writing, with different writers week to week. I find it interesting to listen to, both for the writers' stories and to learn about TV writing. But I can't tell you how many of those people talk about how excruciatingly painful it is for them to write.
Reminds me of the old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and says, "Doc, it hurts when I do this."
The doctor says, "Then don't do that."
Which is what I would say to people who find writing painful.
But, anyway, rewriting - God help me, I enjoy it. For a first draft, you chase all the rabbits down their little holes, looking for the ones that will best contribute to the story. Along the way you pick up characters who are interesting and fun (or crazy or dangerous or stupid) who ultimately end up being unnecessary to the story.
Don't get me wrong. It's really fun when you're humming along on the first draft. At times the story seems to write itself, the characters come up with all these really cool lines, and you wake up early just to get at that computer. First drafts can be a blast.
Right up until you hit a wall. How am I going to get from here to there? Or why didn't I realize this character was going to have to do this thing that he wouldn't really do? Of course, the next day when the answer pops into your head, it's back to fun and games.
The rewrite is when you jettison all the extra baggage and keep only the stuff that best moves the story forward.
You discover you can consolidate scenes, that two things could be done more effectively in half as many pages. You figure out ways to give readers clues to the resolution of the story - and just as important - you figure out ways to draw the reader's attention away from that clue you just fed them, and pay attention to something else that's not going to help them solve the mystery. You make your characters consistent. You solve plot problems. You fix the book, changing it from a big sprawling mess to a tightly-woven, suspenseful roller-coaster ride.
And that's fun.
Motor City Shakedown is going to sneak up on its launch date with a couple of events prior to the "official" launch of 9/13 - St. Martin's has given us permission to sell the book early (only at these events!).
Old Car Festival at Greenfield Village - Dearborn, MI
The first is Saturday, September 10th at The Old Car Festival at Greenfield Village, which is an awesome show with hundreds of antique cars. The Benson Ford Research Center also sells books and some of their old memorabilia at the event. I'll be speaking at 3:30 PM at the Benson Ford (this is all on the grounds of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI). My presentation is called, "Motor City Shakedown - The Mob, Motors, and Mayhem in Old Detroit."
Kerrytown Bookfest - Ann Arbor, MI
The second is the following day (9/11) in Ann Arbor at The Kerrytown Bookfest, a fantastic celebration of books held in downtown AA. I'll be moderating a panel at 2:00 PM called, “Michigan Voices: a Sense of Place”: featuring Laura Kasischke, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michael Federspeil, & William Whitbeck. We'll also be signing books afterwards. I'll be spending a lot of the day at Kerrytown, so feel free to look me up if you go!
Left Bank Books’ Paragraph Party - St. Louis, MO
On Friday, 9/16 at 8:00 PM at the Bridge Tap House and Wine Bar, I'll be one of twenty mystery and thriller authors reading from our most recent books and meeting and greeting readers and booksellers. If you're going to Bouchercon or live in the area, it will be a great opportunity to meet some of your favorite authors. New York Times best-selling author Chelsea Cain will be the Mistress of Ceremonies for the evening, and guests include Cara Black, Tasha Alexander, Eoin Colfer, Deon Meyer, Daniel Woodrell, James Benn, Peter James, Stuart Neville, Paul Doiron, Marcia Clark, Martin Limon, Dana Haynes, Leighton Gage, D.E. Johnson, Lisa Brackman, Gianrico Carofiglio, Judith Rock, and Nancy Means Wright.
Other events are posted on my "Tour" page, including my panel at Bouchercon in St. Louis and my West Michigan appearances. Hope to see you at one of them!
Booklist came out with their review of Motor City Shakedown and had some very nice things to say, including, "Violent, suspenseful, and complex, Johnson’s shakedown in Detroit sucks the breath out of readers rushing to the cliff’s edge with Will and Elizabeth. This gritty new series is a good match for James Ellroy and George Pelecanos fans..."
Pretty sweet getting compared to Ellroy and Pelecanos, two of the best writers of crime fiction!
Less than four weeks to launch. I can't wait!
Kirkus Reviews just passed along their take on Motor City Shakedown, and I'm pleased to say it was a positive one. Here it is:
MOTOR CITY SHAKEDOWN
Author: Johnson, D.E.
Review Issue Date: August 15, 2011
Online Publish Date: August 2, 2011
Price ( Hardcover ): $24.99
Publication Date: September 13, 2011
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-312-64457-4
"The Latin proverb 'Revenge is a confession of pain' perfectly describes Will Anderson's situation.
In 1911 Detroit, Will Anderson lives for revenge. His involvement in the death of his friend Wesley McRae (The Detroit Electric Scheme, 2010) and his own disfigurement at the hands of mobsters has led him to follow the driver of crime boss Vito Adamo.
When he finds the man with his throat cut, he knows he will be a suspect and realizes he must find the killer. It’s no easy job in a dangerous world populated by rival gangs willing to do anything to come out on top. Arrested for murder, Will spends months in jail before a confession from another man sets him free.
But all is not well; he’s become addicted to morphine, and his family is imperiled. His father must either produce a large sum of money or let a union into his electric car company. His back against the wall, Will puts his hope in his ex-fiancée, Elizabeth Hume, recently returned from Europe; Detective Riordan, one of the few honest cops in Detroit; and the Purple Gang, a bunch of young boys he’s enlisted to help him survive the mob war raging around him. Under these circumstances, he finds that Vito Adamo may be more friend than enemy.
Johnson’s period noir is violent and chaotic, but his clever weaving of history with intriguing characters makes for an exciting read."
Violent? Me? Do you suppose they take exception to multiple shotgun murders? (In fact, I included only a portion of the real chaos and violence of Detroit's first mob war. Had I included it all, the book would have read more like a WWI book.)
But, hey, two for two in reviews so far. I should be seeing Booklist and Library Journal soon. Hopefully they like Motor City Shakedown too!
Got some great news today. Publishers Weekly came out with the first advance review for Motor City Shakedown - and liked it so much they gave it a starred review. Here it is (but don't read it if you haven't read The Detroit Electric Scheme yet. There's a serious spoiler here.)
Motor City Shakedown
D.E. Johnson. Minotaur, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0312644574
"Set in Detroit in 1911, Johnson's vibrant follow-up to The Detroit Electric Scheme delivers razor-sharp depictions of the motor city. Will Anderson, a member of the family that owns the Anderson Electric Car Company (formerly the Anderson Carriage Company), is determined to bring to justice the killers of a close friend, Wesley McRae, who was murdered by thugs seven months earlier. Anderson, who's become a morphine addict after using the narcotic to dull the pain from the loss of some fingers on his right hand, gets a line on Carlo Moretti, the driver for one of the men behind McRae's death, mobster Vito Adamo. But before Anderson can confront Moretti, someone else slits the driver's throat, and Anderson himself becomes the prime suspect for Moretti's murder. Johnson brings the turbulence and rampant corruption of the era to life through his flawed yet tenacious lead in this worthy successor to his debut. (Sept.)"
And then I got asked to be on a TV show next week while I'm up in Grand Rapids for the "GR Reads" Program. Next Monday night at 5:10 PM I'll be on "The One Seven" on Fox 17.
It's a good day.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Vito Adamo controlled much of the crime in Detroit. In The Detroit Electric Scheme, my protagonist, Will Anderson, runs afoul (as we say in historical mysteries) of Adamo, and pays a high cost for that. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, puts Will into the middle of the first recorded mob war in Detroit history—a bloody campaign of shotgun murders on the streets of Little Italy, fought between the Adamo and Gianolla gangs.
People often think of this time period as a golden age, with family values and proper manners and all that good stuff, but the reality was pretty ugly—unless you were one of the few “Haves.”
Vito Adamo wanted to be one of them. He came over from Sicily in the early 1900’s and moved to Ford City, downriver of Detroit (now part of Wyandotte). He and his brother Salvatore opened a grocery in Ford City and branched out into Black Hand work—the protection racket—as well as importation of various items from untaxed liquor to illegal aliens. Adamo was known as the “White Hand.” Once the Black Hand had gone in to collect protection money from a business owner, the White Hand would visit and demand money to protect the business from the Black Hand.
In both cases, they were Adamo’s men. (He was a creative entrepreneur. Don’t we respect that in this country?)
The Gianolla brothers, Tony, Sam, and Gaetano, owned a grocery store across the street from the Adamo brothers’ store, but competed with them in more ways than groceries. They wanted what the Adamo brothers had. To gain the upper hand in the beer business, the Gianollas lowered their prices. The Adamos retaliated by matching the price and throwing in ice.
This was followed by the murder of two Gianolla associates, William Catalono and John Jervaso. Vito Adamo and another man were accused of the killings, and eventually they turned themselves in to face trial. It’s unclear why they did that, but I’d guess it was one of two things: either the Gianollas were getting too close and Adamo thought he’d be safer in jail, or he had arranged things so that he was certain of being acquitted. Since they were acquitted, I’m leaning toward the second idea.
When Adamo was released from custody, all hell broke loose. In 1913, over a period of about ten months, nine men were killed in a three block by five block section of Detroit’s Little Italy, and numerous others in the same area were shot or stabbed but lived. The weapon of choice was the shotgun.
The Detroit newspapers made this a front page story all year, and city residents were horrified enough that the police department put together a gang squad to make the city safe again. (How’d that work out?)
By the end of 1913 the gang war was over, and the victors went on to rule Detroit crime until nearly the end of the decade. I’d tell you who it was, but that would compromise Motor City Shakedown for you. You can find out in the book. If you don’t want to wait, it’s easy enough to find out on your own.