Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Detroit Breakdown by D.E. Johnson

Detroit, Michigan, 1912. A vibrant, active city, the trolleys are packed no matter the time. The automobile industry is booming with the electric vs internal combustion engine question still to be decided. The suffragette movement is going strong.

A late night anonymous call takes Elizabeth Hume and Will Anderson to Eloise, the insane asylum outside of Detroit. Her cousin, Robert Clarke, a long-time resident there, is accused of strangling another patient. But Robert says it was the Phantom. Francis Beckwith, son of the hospital administrator and himself a schizophrenic, agrees. Francis is obsessed with  The Phantom of the Opera, and says the murder was committed with a Punjab lasso, just as in the book. Furthermore, there have been three other murders committed in the same manner.

Elizabeth wants to clear her cousin but there is something fishy going on at Eloise. The Asylum is a small town with its own police force and gates have slammed shut against outsiders. Frantic for information —Elizabeth can't even find out where Robert is being held —Elizabeth agrees to let William get himself committed so that he can continue the investigation from the inside. For her part, Elizabeth forms a plan to become a volunteer at the hospital. With the plans in effect, Detroit Breakdown shifts into thriller mode with plenty of action to bring the story to a perilous and satisfying conclusion.

Detroit Breakdown was an unexpected treat. I don't often read historicals but I accepted Detroit Breakdown as a review copy and I was quite pleased with the reading experience.

This is the third in a series featuring Elizabeth Hume and Will Anderson. As such, there is a lot of backstory. The author doesn't do a data dump of everything that happened previously but integrates references to prior events into the story as the characters experience feelings of self-doubt or guilt. What is soon obvious is that the Elizabeth and Will are tortured souls— emotionally, psychologically, and, in Will's case physically. The story can be enjoyed without knowing the entire backstory but I'm going to follow up by reading the first two books: The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown.

If you are looking for a book with a strong, independent female protagonist then this book should satisfy. Elizabeth comes across as the stronger, more adept of the two characters. She is an active suffragette, preparing for the vote to ratify the 19th amendment. She owns two guns and shows herself capable of using them. She has vulnerabilities and insecurities but is a determined, proactive woman. I quite like her. Both she and Will appear to be prone to drug abuse but have overcome that by the events here. Will's role is to take the physical brunt. Here and in the previous books, he suffers horrific physical trauma. Both Elizabeth and Will are complex characters with backgrounds they have to suppress to solve the mystery.

I visited Detroit several years ago and it is fascinating to read about a time when it was thriving. This being Detroit, the competing automobile industries are part of the story. Will's father owns Detroit Electric which began as Anderson Electric Car Company. I hadn't thought much about early electric cars before reading this book but it sent me off to Wikipedia where I learned that Detroit Electric was an actual company started by someone named Anderson. Elizabeth drives an electric which allows the author to work in the logistics of owning an electric automobile. Interesting stuff particularly with the battery powered car making a comeback with the hybrids and the Tesla.

The main focus of the story, Eloise, was an actual psychiatric hospital. As in the story, it was self sufficient in many ways with its own train stop, police force, fire station, pig farm. It even had the tunnel that figures into the story. The Tales of Eloise web site is an interesting read and it was fun to compare the map included in Detroit Breakdown with the map of the actual institution. Johnson  graphically illustrates the state of psychiatric care at the turn of the century. Have amnesia, don't speak English, the police found it convenient to warehouse problems by sending to the mental hospital. Psychiatric therapy was just emerging when the story is set so we see alternate approaches to treatment that we would consider horrific today.

Detroit Breakdown is a good read particularly if you enjoy a well written historical story. Johnson works the culture, fashion, lifestyle, and technology of the day into the story naturally without leaving readers feeling that they have happened upon entries from an encyclopedia. I like the characters, enough to want to read the first two books in the series. They're flawed human beings which makes them more interesting, even likable. You'd want them on your side in a fight.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Last year I was excited to see that Megan Abbott had a new book out. But cheerleaders! Nah, not for me. Jump ahead to January and I'm browsing bookshelves and see Dare Me. "Hold on", I think to myself, "this is Megan Abbott. She wrote the novel Queenpin (a Jim Thompson style noir that I love) and the non-fiction book, The Street was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir (which I have on permanent loan from the library). She's hardboiled and knows her stuff" and picked up a copy. This was a lesson to me and Megan I'll never doubt you again. I loved the book from page one and consumed it in one sitting. I'm late to the game and won't be doing a full-on review but, for those readers who know nothing about Dare Me, these blogs wrote what I wish I had so check them out:
Full Stop
Three Guys One Book
Jen's Bookshelves
Spinetingler Magazine

Full Stop calls this a "suburban noir" and it's a good description. The teenagers in Dare Me are dark, hardboiled, and like a gangland mob with a rigid hierarchy and a vicious enforcement of discipline. Mean Girls. Hah! This cheerleading squad would eat them for breakfast.

The crime isn't the main focus of the story which is the power struggle between Beth, the head girl, her faithful lieutenant Addy, and the new coach, Colette French. The story is pretty self-contained in that the rest of the high school is more or less a shadow behind the actions of the squad.

Megan's prose is perfect and the lyrical flow of the first person narration pulled me into the story. The characters became scary real the more I read and I was both fascinated and repelled by them.

When you read Dare Me, I recommend you make a note of the cheerleader routines Megan describes. There are You Tube videos demonstrating all of them. Stop reading and take a look at what the girls are doing. Remarkable stuff.