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Detroit Breakdown by D. E. Johnson

Detroit Breakdown (edition 2012)

by D. E. Johnson

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Title:Detroit Breakdown
Authors:D. E. Johnson
Info:Minotaur Books (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 336 pages
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Detroit Breakdown by D. E. Johnson



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I learned of D.E. Johnson's books when a couple of them made the Michigan Notable Books lists over the past few years. I do not normally read mysteries, but this one, DETROIT BREAKDOWN, sounded kind of interesting because it was set largely in Detroit's now defunct Eloise Mental Hospital, a combination asylum for the insane, a tuberculosis sanatorium and a home for indigents - an institution that was once home to over 10,000 inmates and staff. I had first learned of Eloise when I read Steve Luxenburg's eloquent family memoir, ANNIE'S GHOSTS, a book I enjoyed immensely.

Unfortunately I can't say the same about DETROIT BREAKDOWN. While the writing is workmanlike and Johnson does convey a pretty good sense of what Detroit was like in 1912, the story itself simply did not engage my attention. The characters, even the dual narrators, Will and Elizabeth, seemed paper thin and not very authentic or interesting. I was struck immediately by Elizabeth's seeming lack of concern at finding her boyfriend Will was suddenly mysteriously missing. She went on about her business, not seeming terribly distressed. So I didn't particularly like her. Will's character was equally bland and not very likeable. And then there was the Phantom of the Opera angle. Ah well, I probably shouldn't have been reading the book. I mean, it's a mystery, a genre I'm not overly fond of, although I am a longtime fan of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books and Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series. Those characters are fully-developed, real-seeming sorts of people. Not so with Will Anderson and his girl friend, I'm afraid.

Full disclosure, I didn't finish the book - quit about halfway through, despairing that it would get any better, so I don't really know how the Phantom thing panned out or connected. I just couldn't make myself care whether Will solved the murder(s?) or even if Elizabeth ever found him - or even if he ever got out of the hospital he'd snuck into as an amnesiac patient. The whole thing simply did not work for me. ( )
  TimBazzett | Nov 14, 2014 |
The setting stole the show. ( )
  picardyrose | Dec 31, 2012 |
Eloise asylum in Detroit, 1912. a murderer is operating within the asylum and so we readers get to follow Will has he has himself committed so that he can find the murderer. Love the characters, the relationships between the characters, family secrets exposed and of course fiction that is based on a real place. Very atmospheric as to time and place and this asylum did really exist and remained open until the 1980's. During it's heyday it was totally self sufficient and housed the unwanted, the poor, as well as a sanitarium that took in those with tuberculosis. Once again a book that makes me happy I was not born back then, their idea of treatment for the mentally ill was horrific and so many charged with the care of these unfortunates were down right cruel. This was the third in this series and am looking forward to the fourth. ( )
  Beamis12 | Nov 15, 2012 |
Detroit Breakdown is the third book in D.E. Johnson’s Will Anderson/Elizabeth Hume series. The book (following The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown) is set in 1912 Detroit, and focuses on fictional events inside the real-life Eloise Insane Asylum located just outside the city.

Elizabeth is shocked to learn that her cousin, a patient in the asylum, is being accused of the murders of several of his fellow patients. Each of the victims has been strangled by a “Punjab lasso,” the weapon-of-choice of the Phantom of the Opera, himself – and Robert has been found leaning over the body of the latest to suffer that fate. Elizabeth is certain that her cousin is not a murderer, and she is determined to prove his innocence. And Will, wanting desperately to prove his love for Elizabeth, decides to investigate the murders from the inside – by having himself committed to the asylum as a mental patient.

Elizabeth, with the help of Detroit Police Detective Riordan, also plays a key role in the investigation. Not only does she penetrate the walls of the asylum as a volunteer worker, she and the detective follow all leads pointing outside Eloise. But when Will’s scheme is exposed, and he finds himself at the mercy of a doctor who has everything to lose if exposed, the dual investigations become a race against the clock.

Author Dan Johnson, a native of northern Michigan, is both an amateur historian and the grandson of a former Vice President of Checker Motors. He combines his love of history and his keen appreciation for early automotive pioneers to create a noirish setting for 1912 Detroit. The city’s streets are filled with competing horse-drawn buggies, electric cars, and gasoline-powered vehicles – while its alleys are often filled with huge, stinking mounds of horse manure and garbage. Street crime is rampant, cops are as crooked as those they chase, and insane asylums are places where the inmates are often no crazier than the guards who abuse them on a regular basis.

One might be tempted to say that not all that much has changed in Detroit in the past 100 years, that today’s problems are very much like those of 1912 Detroit. What Johnson makes clear, however, is that it was much more difficult to be poor in 1912 Detroit than it is in the Detroit of today. Then, the wealthy lived a spectacular lifestyle while everyone else, the vast majority of the city’s population, struggled just to keep their families fed and clothed. Those were heady days for those who had the money to enjoy the beautiful restaurants, theaters, parks, and other luxuries the city offered. Johnson vividly captures both lifestyles in Detroit Breakdown and shows what might happen when those two worlds even briefly intersected.

Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume (even Detective Riordan, for that matter) already share a lot of history by the time Detroit Breakdown begins. Although Johnson makes a valiant effort to bring new readers up to speed, I suspect that those having read the first two books in the series will have a much better appreciation of characters and motivations than readers jumping in at book-three as I did. That is not to say that Detroit Breakdown does not work well as a standalone novel, because it does – only that the experience is likely to be a much richer one for readers more intimately familiar with the events of The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown.

Rated at: 4.0 ( )
  SamSattler | Oct 12, 2012 |
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For Papa Dill, Mama Hand-me-down, their children, and, of course, Pearl, the cat. I only wish my imagination were half as rich as that of my girls and their cousins.
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Elizabeth stepped through the little door in the bookcase and disappeared down the corridor.
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Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume are called to Eloise Insane Asylum outside of Detroit, where Elizabeth's cousin Robbie, a patient, is accused of murder. Elizabeth is convinced of his innocence and begins her own dangerous investigation of the crime with the help of Anderson and Detective Riordan.… (more)

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