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A Rough and Tumble Motor City Shakedown

  • Glenn McCarty Contributing Writer
  • 2011 27 Sep
A Rough and Tumble <i>Motor City Shakedown</i>

Author: D.E. Johnson


Title: Motor City Shakedown 


Publisher: Minotaur 

As a piece of historical fiction, D.E. Johnson's Motor City Shakedown does more to conjure the bygone era of gangsters and crooked unions than it does the auto industry boom.

Set in Detroit in 1911, the novel provides only fleeting glimpses of the cluttered, streetcar-laden vibe of the Motor City in what one assumes was its heyday a century ago. But mostly, it leaves the details about Model T's and Henry Ford for another day, choosing instead to revive ghosts of crime lords past, peeling back the surface glamour to take a look at the inevitable cockroaches crawling around underneath.

Shakedown is a pulpy piece of gangster fiction with a whiff of noir, but still isn't able to pack the emotional punch of 2010's Detroit Electric Scheme, which was Johnson's debut.

The protagonist from that novel, Will Anderson, returns in Shakedown to continue pursuing more thugs and baddies - in this case, those affiliated with the Teamsters union - in the aftermath of a pair of murders which took place in the previous book, specifically that of his close friend Wesley McRae.

In Shakedown, Anderson finds himself in wrong-place, wrong-time mode when shadowing the driver for Vito Adamo, the man he believes responsible for McRae's death. He's imprisoned and accused of committing the murder, then released, courtesy of the Gianolla gang, with one condition: give the Teamsters union access to Anderson's father's company, Detroit Electric, or we'll kill everyone you love. Pretty convincing ultimatum. Unfortunately, Anderson is incapable of fully performing such a task, both because his father has no intention of unionizing his company, and because Anderson is beset by his lingering hand injury and the subsequent morphine cravings.

Anderson's battle with his personal demons doesn't come off as sympathetically as is necessary. And Johnson takes too long to reach the end of the plot's long and winding road. There's too much planning for clandestine meetings and not enough adrenaline-filled showdowns.

Mostly, Anderson and sometime-girlfriend Elizabeth Hume seek the help of anyone and everyone, from noble cops to newsboys, to extricate Anderson from his situation. Sorting out the characters also takes some work - there are a lot of crooked Italians with a penitent for violence. Still, the climactic showdown scene in a restaurant crackles with all the tension of a Mario Puzo novel. Anderson and Hume show up armed to the teeth, and we just know somebody's going to get whacked. We just have no idea who.

The shocking twist which follows isn't nearly as electric as in Johnson's debut. We keep expecting Anderson's heat-packing girlfriend to be a cop, or an undercover "Pinkerton," but she's not. Just your average, run-of-the-mill femme fatale. And when the dust settles, we're happy for the outcome, but not gasping for air. And in a mystery such as this, we should be.

In Shakedown, Johnson offers tantalizing glimpses of his potential: thrillers fueled by a comprehensive knowledge of early Detroit auto industry lore. A scene featuring Anderson taking his new modified Model T "Torpedo" for a spin at a pulse-pounding 45 miles per hour is pure fun. Somehow, it feels like a disappointment that there's less of the cars and more of the cartels in this installment. 

*This review first published 9/27/2011