Author's historical novel focuses on suffrage era


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When D.E. Johnson started writing professionally, he tried writing humor.

However, he discovered, much to his chagrin, he wasn’t that funny.

So Johnson, 55, of Schoolcraft, Mich., switched to 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 didn’t read a lot of historical mysteries at the time, it just seemed like a good marriage for me,” explained Johnson, who will be signing copies of his latest novel “Detroit Shuffle” in Dearborn on Tuesday, Oct. 21, and in Livonia on Wednesday, Oct. 22 (see sidebar).

Johnson created Will Anderson, the fictional son of the actual William C. Anderson, owner/founder of Detroit Electric, an automotive company defunct since 1939. Will has been the hero in all four of Johnson’s novels: “The Detroit Electric Scheme,” “Motor City Shakedown,” “Detroit Breakdown,” and the aforementioned “Detroit Shuffle.”

“(The real William 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 Will desperately wants to live up to his father’s expectations.”

The novels occur in Detroit circa 1911. Johnson has thrust Will into many historical events of the time: the infancy of the automotive industry, the Detroit mob’s rise to power, the infamous Eloise psychiatric hospital, and women’s suffrage.

“Political corruption is nothing new for Detroit. In 1912, almost the entire city council was arrested in a sting operation, which is featured in ‘Detroit Shuffle,’ along with the suffrage issue. The reason suffrage became the topic of this book is that it was a huge topic at the time,” he said. “In 1912, Michigan was a battleground state for universal suffrage and a got a great deal of national attention. Women like Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago – maybe the most influential American woman of the day – and Sylvia Pankhurst, famous British suffragette, came to the Detroit area to speak. The city was split, generally on religious lines – Catholics as no-voters, Protestants as supporters. It was a lively debate, which ended with voter fraud, an unsuccessful recount, and a lot of bad feelings.”

Will’s fiancée Elizabeth Hume is head of the Detroit Suffrage Club. Elizabeth joins the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association, the largest of the statewide groups, led by Michigan suffrage hero Clara Arthur.

“Elizabeth has really created herself over the course of the four books. I wanted to have a tough and modern – for the period – heroine who had overcome huge obstacles, but I had to also make her part of Will's social circle, which meant she had to come from a well-to-do family. Since she narrated half of ‘Breakdown,’ I really had to get in her head, and as I did, she became a much deeper character for me. She had to be someone that Will would love almost to the point of worship, which set a high bar. I think she’s met it,” explained Johnson. “Elizabeth has been trying to work for the suffrage movement for a couple of books, but her adventures with Will have prevented that. Now she gets to show her leadership skills and continue to develop as a character. With the two big political scandals of the day, politics and deception play a big part in this book.”

At a rally, Will stops a gunman from assassinating Elizabeth. However, nobody else witnesses this and Elizabeth believes that Will hallucinated the entire scenario.

“Will (suffered) some serious brain trauma in ‘Breakdown’ (when) the asylum administrator gave him some unnecessary radiation treatment,” said Johnson. “He has blackouts, and (nobody’s) quite sure how sane or rational he is throughout this book. This let me put Will in a position of having to accept help from some unlikely allies.”

One of whom is Sapphira Xanakis, the femme fatale from “Electric Scheme” and Will’s nemesis. Sapphira informs Will of a conspiracy to defeat the amendment.

“With the huge influx of immigrants into Detroit from southern Europe, I chose to make (Sapphira) Greek. I didn't want her to be an out-and-out evil character, particularly after all I read about ‘white slavery,’ otherwise known as human trafficking,” he said. “It was a huge problem 100 years ago with women disappearing off the streets, drugged, raped, and sold to brothel-owners who forced them (into prostitution). I wanted to give Sapphira a rich backstory, and with the women’s rights theme of ‘Shuffle,’ I thought the time was right for her to return.”

Johnson researched his novels at the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

“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 leaders had for Detroit at the time – there was such a different feel,” he said. “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.”


D.E. Johnson’s upcoming appearances

Novelist D.E. Johnson is participating in the Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Garden City, Inkster, Livonia, and Romulus Community Reads Program.

• He will be signing Detroit Shuffle and other books at the Henry Ford Centennial Library, located at 16301 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, at 6:30 p.m. Call 313-943-2330 for further details.

• He will also be signing at the Livonia Civic Center Library, located at 32777 5 Mile Rd. in Livonia, on Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 6:30 p.m. Call 734-466-2491 for further details.