“Detroit Breakdown” by D. E. Johnson
“Detroit Breakdown” is the third book in a mystery series set in Detroit in the 1910s. Johnson makes good use of period details, especially the little-known nuggets, like the popularity of electric cars at the time. Lead characters Will Anderson and his fiancée Elizabeth Hume each carry some baggage; sometimes the references to past events is interruptive, but overall their back stories drive them in compelling directions. The novel alternates between first-person narration from Will and Elizabeth, an effective technique giving insight to both, although there is some repetition early in the book. The format is most effective when the two are separated.
The title is a play on words, evocative of automotive breakdowns in the Motor City but really referring to mental breakdowns. As the novel opens, Elizabeth’s cousin Robert, a resident at the Eloise insane asylum, is accused of murder. Between terrible childhood memories of visiting the asylum and her mother developing dementia, Elizabeth is concerned about her own mental health. When the hospital’s doctors and police force seem happy to sweep the murder—which some claim is the latest in a series—under the rug, Will feigns amnesia to get committed to the asylum and investigate what’s going on himself. He questions the patients, some of whom, of course, have a shaky sense of reality. Meanwhile, Elizabeth volunteers at Eloise under an assumed name.
False names, fake amnesia, real insanity, and a killer right out of “The Phantom of the Opera” blend together to keep the reader guessing. Johnson also makes great use of the asylum setting, exploiting the often atrocious treatment of the mentally ill in the time period, both through abuse and ill-conceived therapies, to ramp up the danger at Eloise. By the end, many of the characters have had to face their deepest fears, which gets them through the current situation while also developing the characters across the larger story of the series.
Enjoyable on its own, but the close connections to continuing story arcs from the first two books would make it better when read in its proper order.
Reviewed by Scott Pearson, author of “Star Trek: Honor in the Night,” for Suspense Magazine