In what I hope is only the beginning of a series, Johnson sets his compelling tale in early 1900s Detroit, a city on the cusp of greatness, both electric and gasoline-powered automobiles pouring off the assembly lines to enthusiastic customers. To be sure, the transition hasn’t quite been made; horse-drawn carriages clog city streets along with the new vehicles. While wealthy men celebrate their new fortunes in glittering celebrations, the poor and immigrant populations still cluster on the outskirts of the city, the American Dream out of reach.
Into this mix of old and new Will Anderson appears, son of the owner of Detroit Electric, 1910’s leading electric automobile manufacturer. While gasoline-powered vehicles rule the market, the Andersons’ electric mode of transportation is a favorite among ladies for its ease of use. Henry Ford’s gasoline-powered cars have not yet devised a way of starting without the use of a hand crank, perceived too difficult for ladies to manipulate.
An only son, Will is being groomed to take over his father’s business but currently is on a mission of self-destruction. Daily drunkenness has nearly cost Will his job, night and day spent agonizing over guilt in the broken relationship with ex-fiancé, Elizabeth, who is now engaged to Will’s former friend, John Cooper, a strong-arm for the Employer’s Association of Detectives. The EAD are union-busters who wade into crowds of protestors, swinging clubs and gathering bodies for waiting paddywagons.
Honoring an unexpected request, Will goes to the Anderson factory late at night to meet Cooper, who has mentioned that Elizabeth is in danger, in need of Will’s help. There Will finds Cooper gruesomely murdered - an ugly, violent death - with Anderson the likely suspect in a diabolical frame-up. Fleeing the scene of the crime in a panic, Will is bullied and interrogated first by beat cops, then Detective Riordan, who is convinced the young “swell” is guilty.
Anderson does himself no favors with his dependence on whiskey, caught up in murder and blackmail with an increasing likelihood that he will spend his life behind bars. Determined to help Elizabeth but unaware of how she may be threatened, Will dances between breaking through her wealthy family’s barriers to keep them apart and the pursuit of John’s killer to clear his name, drawn deeper into a web of lies that make him an easy target for Riordan.
Anderson is a natural for this role, a young man with the best of intentions on the wrong track, as Johnson builds a scenario where crime, drugs and the underworld mesh seamlessly with the city’s success. From organized crime to the Pinkertons to the seemingly assured success of electric automobiles, this is a fine mix of society folks and underworld thugs who thrive on criminal enterprise. With a smattering of well-known names in the fledgling automotive industry - the Dodge brothers, Edsel, Ford, etc. - precise historical details lend authenticity to an already riveting thriller. Thanks to the unconditional aid of a controversial new friend, Will faces his guilt and becomes a man in the face of great peril in a fine novel with a social context that raises it above the usual genre fare.