Motor City Murder is Megan Clare Johnson’s debut novel, and it represents the first book in a series starring feisty detective Deanna Dopp (the second in the series, Nashville City Murder, is due out in 2010.) It is the gritty tale of an ex-detective rejoining up with her old partner to solve a double-murder in the mid-summer heat of Detroit; one committed thirty-five years ago, the other more recently. It is a fast-paced book and covers a lot of ground within 244 pages, yet one is left with a very clear image of exactly what happened and why it happened at the climax without having to think back to over the story to justify motives and mentally tie up ambiguities, which I found rather refreshing.
Motor City Murder starts with the hit-and-run murder of Wanda Doppkowski, a club singer and perpetual drunk who just happens to be the mother of Deanna Dopp, an ex-detective who, for reasons that she could never quite understand, had been fired from the Detroit Police Department for a misdemeanor and drifted off to Portland, Oregon, to try and put her life back together. She is informed of her mother’s death by Gabe Flynn, her ex-partner, and immediately returns to Detroit to seek out the culprit. From the moment she arrives in the Motor City, Deanna, assisted by Gabe and a long-lost sister she hadn’t known existed, is thrust into a generation-old mystery that takes her from the ghettoes to the highest office in the city via the morgue, and the facts she unearths provide answers to many of the questions that have tormented her throughout her life, including the reason why she was fired. The climax runs at breathtaking speed and culminates in leaving the reader elated at the outcome yet saddened at the loss of a certain character, and the overall effect is to leave a pleasant aftertaste that generally comes from having read a good book.
There is very little waste in Motor City Murder. Every sentence pushes the story forward one more step, and there are no side-scenes or sub-plots to draw the attention of the reader away from the main story. Ms. Clare Johnson has also done an excellent job of depicting the hot, sweaty, racially-charged atmosphere of summer in Detroit. The pages literally drip with dark intent and hidden (sometimes not so hidden) violence, and the pace of the story is such that the reader is sure to be kept at a high state of tension as the book runs inexorably through to the climax.
One slight drawback to the book may be found in the slightly stereotypical, almost Hollywoodesque, makeup of the characters—the incredibly tough female detective, the partner harboring a drinking problem, the corrupt cops, the manipulated-from-above police chief, the crooked mayor, the retired don who still wields the power, the kindly but streetwise midwife, etc., etc., etc. Personally, however, I found that the more I read, the less this bothered me, and after a while the book began to generate a cozy sensation reminiscent of putting on a favorite pair of old pajamas that had been warming in front of an open fire on a cold winter’s night; a tangible sense of warm, comfortable familiarity. This was probably due to the fact that the book is plot-driven, not character-driven, and the storyline is strong enough to support these stereotypes without grating on the sensibilities of reader too much. I therefore have no qualms in recommending it.
Visit Megan Clare Johnson’s website at http://www.meganclarejohnson.com/
Motor City Murder
Megan Clare Johnson