Book Review: Detroit Breakdown

D.E. Johnson’s Detroit Breakdown is a mystery and suspense novel set in Detroit’s most infamous insane asylum– Eloise. The story, the third in a series of stand-alone novels, takes place in 1912 and plays heavily upon the historical abuse of mental patients as the two main characters– Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume– try to free Elizabeth’s “cousin” Robert and discover who is killing patients at Eloise in the style of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. The story pays homage to Nellie Bly’s exposé Ten Days in a Madhouse as the pair decide the best way to determine the identity of the “Phantom” killer would be to have Will committed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story both from a historical standpoint and as a book enthusiast.

I’ve read a lot of mystery novels, and I hate being able to predict the ending to most mystery books as a result. I didn’t have that issue here. The story leads the reader not one, but multiple trails of breadcrumbs which keep the reader second-guessing the outcome of the novel. The story had a steady pace that kept the story flowing and made the book a really pleasurable read. I really wanted to know how it would end!

The historical details about Detroit circa 1912 were impressive. As a civil engineer who works in the field of transportation and public works, I especially enjoyed the author’s descriptions of pedestrian traffic in an era when automobiles were fast-replacing horse and carriage. The difficulties associated with pedestrians crossing the street or automobiles making a left turn across a busy street as well as the loudness of travel which made it utterly impossible to carry on a conversation in transit gave the story an element of  reality and historical perspective. Many of the descriptions of traffic are spot on for the time period, and they describe some of the issues with transportation that have been resolved by modern design standards both on roadways and in automobiles.

If you’re not into cars but still enjoy history, the author has done his homework with respect to the Detroit area and he has thoroughly researched Eloise. The author does admit to taking some artistic liberties with the configuration of buildings at Eloise in order to facilitate his story– but ultimately, the descriptions of the buildings, the layout of the grounds, the inclusion of the tubercular sanatorium, and other details bring the backdrop of the asylum to life. That’s not to say the book is chalk full of detail after boring detail– the magic of this book is in the subtle way these details are presented and how the author uses them to enhance his story and bring the characters and setting to life.

I had been asked to read the book because of my review of  Ten Days in a Madhouse. Being familiar with this serious but humorous exposé by Nellie Bly was like being privy to a series of inside jokes (or Easter Eggs) left by the author. There were three places where the author borrowed somewhat liberally from Bly’s “Madhouse” and left me grinning with recognition. The first was on page 48 when Will decides to act looney in order to get committed to Eloise. The second begins on page 72 and goes on for several pages. The series of dialogue contained in these pages borrows heavily from Bly– but I had to laugh at the comments made by Will saying he’d never been to Detroit, but was from Cuba because that was the same ruse used by Nellie Bly. Will also has the same sense of trepidation as described by Bly, both when Will is afraid of being recognized in the courtroom and when he is being examined by a medical professional touted as an “insanity expert”. The third instance, and possibly my favorite because of it’s subtlety, is found on page 89 when “A dozen women in nightshirts were shambling along a path on the side of the building, walking behind an orderly like a row of baby ducks following their mother.” This scene, provides a different perspective of the self-same scene in “Madhouse”. Bly’s was written from the perspective of a women in the shambling group while Will observes the same scene from an entirely different perspective. I felt this was a unique way to give Bly’s story a nod and I felt that it really brought the two stories together.

All-in-all, Detroit Breakdown does a wonderful job of entertaining. I certainly found it a rather delightful read, and I would encourage fans of mystery and suspense to look into this book. The subtle historical nuances that D.E. Johnson has included in his story add an element of fun as the reader is carried on a journey of mystery and intrigue in early 20th century Detroit. Read this book. You won’t be disappointed.

* Johnson, D.E. Detroit Breakdown. New York, NY: Minotaur Books, 2012.

Related Stories on Witching Hour:
Ten Days in a Madhouse