Unfinished business-- Author of 'Motor City Shakedown' looks at what Detroit could be

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Author D.E. Johnson thought that just because he read a lot of books, he could write a lot of books.

However, Johnson, 58, of Kalamazoo, soon found out that wasn't the case.

''I always wanted to write. It was the thing I wanted to do going into college (at Central Michigan University), but I became convinced it wasn't practical; I needed to do the practical thing that would pay the bills, so I decided not to pursue it at the time. But it just ate at me. I started books half a dozen times over the years. They were all dismal; I didn't have any idea what I was doing,'' he said.

Undaunted, Johnson spent two years studying writing and taking classes on the craft of writing. He also pounded out his first novel, which will stay in the inside of his computer. He then tried his hand at writing humor, but found out he wasn't as funny as he thought.

''So I switched to the historical mystery. I love good historical fiction that takes me to a place I've never been before and helps me learn. I also love smart mysteries that will really pull the story along and keep me entertained and keep me guessing. Even though I did not read a lot of historical mysteries at the time, it just seemed like a good marriage for me,'' said Johnson.

His second novel, ''Motor City Shakedown,'' was recently released. It is a sequel to his inaugural novel, ''The Detroit Electric Scheme,'' featuring protagonist Will Anderson. He is the fictional son of the actual William C. Anderson, the owner of Detroit Electric, an automotive company that has been defunct since 1939.

''(The real Anderson) only had daughters. I figured I'd give him a son--he'd be happy about that,'' said Johnson. ''I thought it would be interesting to have a son who was a namesake because part of Will's character is that he very desperately wants to live up to what his father expects of him... carry on the tradition of being a successful businessperson and that sort of thing.''

In ''Shakedown,'' which occurs in Detroit circa 1911, Will is still reeling from the events of the previous novel. On top of that, he gets caught up in a gang war between the Adamo Gang and the Gianolla Gang, both of which were actual gangs, according to Johnson.

''One of the local gangs is trying to shake down Detroit Electric to get the Teamsters Union in. That leads into a problem with Vito Adamo, who Will has some unfinished business with in the first book,'' explained Johnson. ''Adamo was the first guy to consolidate the rackets in Detroit. So really he was the first crime boss, although back in those days it was nothing like 'The Godfather' with all the money and power--they were still essentially street gangs that strong-armed people primarily.''

He continued, ''The Adamo Gang and the Gianolla Gang had a shotgun war on the streets of Detroit. Over a period of nine months, there were dozens of men, nine of them killed, including a policeman. It was just chaos. In the newspapers of the day, practically every day the headlines were something about shootings, stabbings, beatings, and whatever else going in within a 9-block radius of what was Little Italy at the time.''

Adamo is one of many historical figures appearing in ''Shakedown.'' The author has a soft spot for Edsel Ford, the son of automotive pioneer and visionary Henry Ford. Edsel Ford succeeded his father as president of Ford Motor Co. from 1919 up until his death in 1943. Johnson stated that he feels Edsel Ford--a friend of Will's in his books--is a very misunderstood individual in the annals of automotive history.

''I think he was a brilliant guy--very creative and artistic, very philanthropic. He did a lot of great things for the city of Detroit. People remember him as his father's lackey more than anything else. I think he was a pretty remarkable person. When I was writing the first book, one of my little goals was to raise a little awareness of Edsel's abilities. I've continued with him in this book but not in as quite a significant role,'' explained Johnson. ''My thought is I'd rather talk about historical figures people aren't as familiar with, partly because it gives me a little more license with them. From a historical perspective, it makes it more interesting for me and, I think, for the readers as well.''

Johnson did extensive research for his novels at the Benson Ford Research Center at Henry Ford Museum, which is part of The Henry Ford in Dearborn, and the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

''The Benson Ford Research Center just has a phenomenal collection--they are just jam-packed with documents from the auto industry,'' said Johnson. ''They have a ton of stuff on Detroit Electric, including sales brochures and manuals going back to 1910. I was able to really put together a good understanding of the company and their products just by starting there and getting what I needed.''

Johnson's research required him to pound the pavement. He walked around the city, taking photos, giving him a feel for Detroit.

''The one benefit of the city is that an awful lot of these 100-year buildings are still around, even though they may not be in good condition anymore. I did that until I felt like I could visualize what it was like at that time. That was the point I started writing,'' he said. ''During my entire life, the city has been in a decline. As I started to do research, I saw what an incredible, vibrant, confident city it was. The enthusiasm that the business leaders and public leaders had for Detroit at the time--there was such a different feel. I wanted to communicate the Detroit that was and maybe could be again one day. I thought this might be a good way to do it.''

According to Johnson, Will will return next fall for a third historical mystery, taking him into the infamous Eloise Hospital in Southeastern Michigan, which eventually became one of the largest insane asylums in the United States. Eloise closed its doors for good in 1984 and has become an urban legend.

In the as-yet-untitled third book, Elizabeth--Will's lover--has a cousin committed to Eloise who is accused of murder. Will and Elizabeth know her cousin is innocent but can't get any information.

''The only way to figure this mystery out it is to go inside. Elizabeth volunteers as a nurse and Will goes in as a patient. There's a good possibility that somebody will go through the pain and abuse some mental patients did 100 years ago,'' said Johnson.

Comedian and late night talk-show host Jay Leno, a car aficionado, praised Johnson's books for their historical accuracy and interviewed the author on ''Jay Leno's Garage'' on NBC.com.

''To me, writing is fulfillment of who I am; it's made just a gigantic change in my life. I'm happier than I've ever been, I feel much more accomplished than I ever did,'' said Johnson. ''I love to write and regardless of whether publishing career takes off or doesn't, I'll probably be doing it for the rest of my life.''

Published: Mon, Nov 14, 2011