Motor City Burning
by Keith Taylor
From the August, 2014 issue
Most of us in this part of the world remember the John Lee Hooker song about the 1967 riots: "Oh, the Motor City's burnin' /It ain't no thing in the world that I can do ... My home town is burnin' down to the ground, / Worster than Vietnam." The song was covered by other singers, other bands (most famously by the MC5), and the phrase has entered our cultural vocabulary. When we hear "the Motor City is burning" we think of the worst racial tension in our state's history and the terrible legacy of the riot in the fabric of the city, a legacy it has taken almost half a century to even begin to understand.
In and around a sports-mad Detroit, everyone alive then remembers where they were in the fall of 1968, fifteen months after the riots, when the Detroit Tigers came from behind to win the World Series. For a short time after that, it seemed as if the city was reborn, ready for anything. It was another moment that shattered our absurd naivete, when we learned that the temporary unity that comes from a sporting victory cannot heal the deeper scars from centuries of injustice.
Bill Morris has taken this shared history and has turned it into a crime novel that is willing to take on that devastating moment, not pulling any punches while never sacrificing the intrigue of his story nor the integrity of his characters.
Frank Doyle is a white homicide cop whose task is to solve the last open murder case from the riot. Willie Bledsoe is a disillusioned veteran of the civil rights movement who finds himself in the wrong city at the wrong time. During the glory months of 1968, Doyle seems to have found his clue to one of the horrors of 1967. His investigation brings him closer and closer to Bledsoe, who appears to be a chastened activist working hard to resign himself to disillusionment. There are,
of course, the secrets that are buried deep, and there is the economy and history of Detroit, and none of these things can be ignored or forgotten.
Local readers may be most intrigued by Morris's re-creation of the city from the late 1960s. The streets are familiar, but the buildings are gone or have changed. Michigan and Trumbull is now an empty lot, and the Rouge Plant looks almost pristine with its "green" roof and its nearly smokeless presence. Here's how Morris remembers it from 1968: "The six slender silver stacks were belching smoke at the heavens, and Doyle could see a freighter off-loading iron ore, sending up an orange cloud that drifted off to the south like fallout. It was a blasted world--rusty silos, mountain ranges of coal and slag, spurts of fire, conveyor belts and railroad tracks, all of it coated with ash and bisected by a river as green as a lizard." It is a measure of assimilation to southeast Michigan for a reader to find himself nostalgic for that landscape. And also, perhaps, to find himself completely sympathetic to all the characters in Bill Morris's Motor City Burning.
Morris reads at Nicola's Books August 14.
[Originally published in August, 2014.]
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