Many years ago, a friend passed along a copy of Whiskey River by Michigan writer Loren D. Estleman. The book is a crime novel about booze smuggling set in Detroit during Prohibition, and I burned through it in record time. I knew I had to read more by this guy.
Estleman primarily writes mysteries and westerns, with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche or two thrown in for good measure. As with any good classic crime story, his private eye, Amos Walker, hits the ground running. There are no wasted sentences. Every description, every line of tough-bitten dialogue, serves to advance the plot. A jaded hero, Walker feels like he stepped out of the past, but he’s also a product of post-“Glory Days” modernity, albeit grudgingly. Walker doesn’t often get the girl or the credit, but he gets the job done. And without the dime store philosophy.
The Detroit series is Estleman’s terrific stand-alone collection of novels, each set in a particular decade of the city, and embodying the characters, events, and sensibilities of the time. This is the twentieth-century history of the Motor City played out in books that feature figures like Henry Ford, the Purple Gang, a disgraced Tigers pitcher, and events such as Prohibition, WWII, the riots of the ’40s and the ’60s, and the Murder City era of the ’70s. Seen through the eyes of journalists, criminals, politicians, and cops, these stories bring the Detroit of the past to life.
Two of Estleman’s recent books have muscled their way to the top of my reading stack. You Know Who Killed Me is the latest Amos Walker yarn. I immediately dove in, coming up for air only when necessary. In recent years, Estleman has thrown a few curves at Walker; he’s been shot, he’s slowing down with age, and in the latest, the hard-drinking private dick is forced to confront a Vicodin addiction. But the good guys never say die, so Walker soldiers on.
The second book, Detroit Is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen, is a collection of stories featuring the Racket Squad characters introduced in Estleman’s 1998 Detroit series novel, Jitterbug, set during the Arsenal of Democracy period of the 1940s. Estleman’s Racket Squad was inspired by several actual police units of the past, including L.A.’s Gangster Squad of the ’40s and ’50s and the notorious STRESS unit of 1970s Detroit. These groups operated independently and were known for bending or breaking the rules. Detroit’s squad is as tough and quick with their fists as the criminals they pursue. The stories in this collection are filled with wonderfully rendered details of wartime Detroit but darkly shaded by the quasi-vigilante tactics of Estleman’s group of anti-heroes bent on delivering justice, often at great cost. This is noir at its best.
When Estleman comes to Aunt Agatha’s on June 6, he’ll be discussing his two new crime books along with his new Western, The Long High Noon.