D.E. “Dan” Johnson says he didn’t start out as an author determined to compose historical thrillers. “The first book I wrote, in 2006-2007, was a religious satire,” he recalls sheepishly. “How I thought I might get that published is a historical mystery to me now. I think it was something I just had to get out of my system.”
After failing to find an agent for that book, he took a different path, combining his interest in “great historical fiction” with his fondness for “smart crime fiction by people like Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley.” The result has been a trio of novels issued over the last three years—The Detroit Electric Scheme, Motor City Shakedown and the brand-new Detroit Breakdown—all set in early 20th-century Detroit, Michigan, and featuring Will Anderson, the headstrong (and fictional) young engineer son of real-life entrepreneur William C. Anderson, owner of the Detroit Electric car company.
Check out the Rap Sheet’s list of 10 other crime novels to read this fall and winter.
Detroit Breakdown finds Will Anderson trying to help his ex-fiancée, Elizabeth Hume, save her cousin, who’s been accused of slaying one of his fellow inmates at Eloise Hospital, an insane asylum outside of Detroit. In order to do that, Will arranges to be tossed into Eloise as an amnesiac, while Elizabeth volunteers at the asylum in disguise. Neither is safe in this escapade, especially since there’s still a killer at large in the hospital, haunting its troubled patients and many suspect employees like something out of The Phantom of the Opera.
How much research into Detroit’s past did you do before writing your first novel?
I spent three months full-time on research, then started writing, and probably spent another two or three months on research during the 15 months the book took me to write. Thank God for the Internet. My hat is off to earlier writers of historicals who got it right. I can’t imagine. Just the other day, I found the complete set of laws for the city of Detroit in 1912 as a Google e-book. Wow! (As my wife reminds me, I get excited about different things than most people.)
Much of Detroit Breakdown takes place at Eloise Hospital, located near the site of today’s Detroit Metro Airport. You’ve acknowledged that this story was inspired, in part, by pioneering female journalist Nellie Bly’s choice to have herself committed to a New York women’s lunatic asylum in 1887 for the purpose of penning an exposé. But which came first, your interest in Eloise, or the storytelling parallels with Bly’s odyssey?
In my research of Detroit, I came across a great deal of information about Eloise. It was a huge place, with as many as 10,000 patients and inmates at one time during the Great Depression. At that time, there were 78 buildings on over 900 acres. It was a city unto itself. It wasn’t yet that size in 1912, but it was growing rapidly (and was the only county-owned asylum in Michigan—the rest were owned and run by the state). Eloise inspired the book. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always been interested in psychology and historical medical quackery.
I found [Bly’s] Ten Days in a Mad-House when I was researching turn-of-the-century mental health care and loved it (although frankly I was hoping for more tortuous treatment—strictly for fictional advantage). Afterward, I spent some time reading about Nellie Bly and was really impressed. This was a woman with guts. Some of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, and I borrowed a little of that for Detroit Breakdown.
I’m intrigued by the evolution of Elizabeth Hume, who started out as Will Anderson’s fairly innocent fiancée, but has since become his resourceful partner. Did you always see her role expanding as the series continued?
I wasn’t sure how big a part Elizabeth would play. In my first draft of The Detroit Electric Scheme, I killed her during the climax. Will had to pay a huge price for his sins, and the death of his former fiancée due to his own machinations was going to be that price.
Then I realized another person—the most-loved character in the book—had to be gone [instead] in order for Will to be able to stand on his own two feet in future books. It was a tough choice, but it was the right decision to drive the series forward. Otherwise, the other character would have had to become the protagonist, and I couldn’t let him steal the story from Will.
Detroit Breakdown focuses less on the city’s early auto industry than your previous titles did. Might your future books revisit the intense competition between car manufacturers?
I pick a different backdrop for each book. The Detroit Electric Scheme contained the story of the rise and fall of the early electric car, Motor City Shakedown had Detroit’s organized crime history and the city’s first mob war, and Detroit Breakdown covers Eloise Hospital and mental health care 100 years ago. Motor City Shakedown continued the automotive focus, partly because it’s what I’d chosen for Will and partly for the organized crime/union connection.
All that said, the car business makes a bit of a comeback in Book 4, since Will and Elizabeth have returned to their “normal” lives.
OK, so tell us more about that next Will Anderson novel.
[It] will be set against the suffrage movement and the 1912 presidential election, which I’m sure you remember from history class was the election in which Teddy Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party (Bull Moose Party) ticket against [incumbent William Howard] Taft and [Woodrow] Wilson, thereby splitting the Republican vote and handing the election to Wilson.
[Women’s] suffrage was one of the biggest hot-buttons of the time, and a number of states, including Michigan, had it on the ballot. Suffrage was certain to win in Michigan, and yet it lost. The public screamed, and the governor demanded a recount, during which tens of thousands of ballots were “lost” and tens of thousands more disqualified because they had been incorrectly printed. The preponderance of those missing votes were from areas known as hotbeds of support for suffrage.
No one was killed over this, near as I can tell, but, of course, someone will be in my book. And I’m afraid Will will, once again, be in for a great deal of discomfort and anxiety.