Written by DE Johnson – Detroit Breakdown is DE Johnson’s third historical mystery sent in Detroit during the beginning of the 20th century. Like its predecessors, The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown, Detroit Breakdown follows the adventures of Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume. The author vividly recreates historical Detroit, and is no less vivid in portraying the intense mental health treatments used at that time.
Detroit Breakdown begins with Will and Elizabeth flirting and enjoying themselves, a welcome respite after the harrowing and oft-mention events from the earlier novels. The good times are short lived, however. Elizabeth receives a mysterious late night call from Eloise Hospital, the insane asylum where her cousin Robert Clarke is kept. Elizabeth races off to see Robert, and Will tags along to offer support.
As it happens, an Eloise inmate has been strangled, and Elizabeth’s cousin is blamed for the killing. Robert, however, blames the Phantom of the Opera. According to Robert, the Phantom has been stalking the Eloise grounds. Francis Beckwith, the schizophrenic son of Eloise Hospital’s administrator and an inmate at the asylum, also blames the Phantom for a rash of killings that the hospital denies even occurred.
Robert Clarke is headed to The Hole, as the asylum’s solitary confinement unit is known. Elizabeth is anxious to protect Robert, but has few options. Bringing the matter to the police would result in her cousin’s incarceration, while leaving Robert at the asylum would bring him abuse that she is convinced he does not deserve. So, Elizabeth and Will make up their minds to investigate the matter themselves. If they can find the truth about the Opera Ghost at Eloise, then they can exonerate Robert. But their risky plan necessitates Will going undercover. Posing as an amnesiac, he becomes an Eloise inmate in order to investigate goings-on at the asylum.
By going into Eloise Hospital, Will puts himself at the mercy of the maladroit psychiatric treatments of that period. He is subjected to radiation, alternating baths of frigid then steaming water, and other practices that will likely seem more like torture than therapy to readers today. Will must accept abuse from asylum staff and avoid fights with other inmates to find the truth about Robert and the Phantom. Dr Beckwith is obviously trying to protect his son – but why?
Nothing is as it seems in the story that follows. What begins as a straightforward mystery continually takes on new dimensions. Nearly every character has a secondary identity. DE Johnson skillfully weaves what seems true with what is, and Detroit Breakdown has a series of revelations that will surprise you every time you think that you have figured out where his plot is heading.
The author narrates first-person, switching intermittently between Elizabeth and Will. The switchovers are used to great effect; Johnson changes narrators at moments of high tension, creating cliffhangers that keep you reading until you can find out how the previous narrator’s dilemma was resolved. Elizabeth is a complex and capable female character who also goes undercover as a volunteer at the asylum while coordinating with a sympathetic detective and dealing with her mother’s deteriorating memory and mental state.
The author sets the vintage scene beautifully. The plot does lag a bit in spots, but is taut and engrossing as the book nears its climax. While the plot stands on its own, the author often references events and characters from the previous novels. If you have not read them, it won’t be abundantly clear why Will has a burned hand, why Elizabeth took self-defense lessons in Paris or who Wesley McRae is. It is usually easy enough to get the jist of things from the context, though.
In Detroit Breakdown, DE Johnson has done extensive research, and the vibrant Michigan milieu he sketches makes for a rewarding novel. Elements of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera are also skillfully incorporated. The central conceit of the novel – Will going undercover and posing as a mental patient – strains credulity somewhat. Nevertheless, Johnson’s winsome characters, rich historical backdrop and gothic suspense will soothe your unease and stoke your craving to reach Detroit Breakdown’s satisfying conclusion.
It is published 4 September in the US, and 13 October in the UK.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
US readers can buy the book here.