Detroit Breakdown, the third book in the Will Anderson series by D.E. Johnson, is an historical noir mystery (available September 4, 2012).
In Detroit Breakdown, which like D.E. Johnson’s earlier books is set in the Detroit of the early 1910s, the author doesn’t actually describe the thriving city so much as casually place the reader in the midst of Gilded Age mansions and wealth wrung from new industry.
The book’s flawed characters include Will, son of an electric automobile magnate. In earlier books he nearly lost his life to gangsters, Teamsters, and crooked cops. He is traumatized, terrified, and full of guilt. Elizabeth, the former fiancée he still loves, hides dark secrets. She’s a gutsy suffragette who, in earlier books, has fought and held her own in the city’s underworld, but she’s also a former opium addict with a family history of madness.
Madhouses underwent a change at the turn of the century, keeping one foot in the barbaric past and another in the disturbingly experimental future. Overcrowding made conditions worse. In an attempt to clear Elizabeth’s mentally ill cousin from a murder charge and expose the real killer inside the hospital walls, Will allows himself to be locked in Detroit’s asylum—a place called Eloise.
The asylum’s black iron gate cast a long row of shadows that swallowed us as we ran up to the entryway. I glanced at Elizabeth. The dark parallel lines slipped across her face as she moved, alternating with light cast by the flood lamps of the grounds. A huge redbrick building loomed in front of us, its twin cupolas silhouetted against a black sky. An iron archway hung above the gate. The institutution’s identity was revealed with a single word formed of simple block letters. One word was enough.
Imprisoned in Eloise, Will is subject to untested treatments that must horrify other readers, as they did me, far more than the shakedowns and fingernail extractions to which we’ve become accustomed in more traditional thrillers.
“We’ve been working on a little experiment.” He held up one of the tubes so I could see it. It was made from shiny silver metal and was about three-quarters of an inch wide by four inches long. “Radium has been found to be an effective treatment against a wide order of maladies, tuberculosis among them. The restorative power of radiation is really most fascinating. We’ve just begun some experiments with radium therapy in curing insanity.”
“You’ve just begun?”
One of the orderlies cinched the strap across my chest, pinning my cuffed hands to my stomach.
“Well, yes, but it’s very promising, and it might help you find your memory.” He smiled. “Of course, no treatment is one hundred percent effective. Don’t worry about the side effects. They aren’t all that problematic.”
Eloise actually existed outside Detroit. It was a monstrous institution of seventy-eight buildings covering more than nine hundred acres. But this is fiction, and readers are allowed backstage into the facility’s administration and physical plant. Tunnels and corridors, like octopus arms, restrain inmates cruelly and suck away their humanity. Beneath its floors lies the labyrinth of a serial killer called, not surprisingly, the phantom of the opera, after the villain of the novel published in the U.S. in 1911.
Johnson uses devices from Phantom of the Opera to drive his narrative. He duplicates vaudevillian freak shows that give birth to villains, traps and torture machines, a tragic romance, and madness. His plot is intricate, the mystery full of red herrings.
A hall of trick mirrors reflects Will and Elizabeth’s state of mind, their inability to separate what is real from the fakery and evil they face.
When I turned back to the forest, a girl looked at me from behind a tree. Another stared back at me from behind the next one. They looked frightened and angry. Behind every tree, a girl stood—hundreds of them, thousands.
They all screamed back.
I spun and grabbed the doorknob, twisting and pulling, but the door wouldn’t open. Still screaming, I threw myself at it, battering my shoulder, my fists. Jerking on the knob, I looked back at the forest. The girls had disappeared, yet still they screamed in my ears.
The room swam before me, spinning in drunken circles. Then darkness.
I was impressed, as I frequently am by well-written noir tales, at the sense of inevitability that pushes the book to its conclusion. I believe I know where it’s headed, or at least have a pretty good idea, but rather than stripping the story of its suspense, my dread of that conclusion merely adds to the tension.
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Lois Karlin writes fiction and blogs at Women of Mystery. In the pursuit of authenticity she’s learned to dag sheep and take down a silo, and knows where to deep six a body in New York’s Hudson Valley.