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Detroit in the Fiction of Elmore Leonard

January 6, 2010

This Christmas I read several of Elmore Leonard’s classic crime novels. Leonard really is one of the greatest American crime writers. His novels are hard-hitting, unpretentious, original and blackly comic tales. Leonard’s novels usually feature a cast of characters from differing backgrounds and professions (both criminal and legitimate) that he brings together in what read as seamlessly interwoven narratives.

Only on question has been bothering me about Leonard’s work — is his depiction of Detroit rather tame? Leonard was born in New Orleans, but his family settled in Detroit when he was a child. The author’s bio in his books usually states Leonard lives in the wider Detroit area, which probably means he lives in the more salubrious Grosse Point or Bloomfield Village, which some would argue are not really part of Detroit. Detroit has been in terminal decline over the past forty years. There are many reasons for this, including the collapse of the American car industry, the race riots of the 1960s, and the ‘White Flight’ — the Caucasian population fled from the city to the suburbs to escape the rising crime rate. Perhaps as so many of Detroit’s social problems are rooted in the politically incendiary subject of race, Leonard avoids the subject so as not to bog his books down in controversy.  The population of the city is 81.6% black, according to the last census. Most of the black population live in the inner city, often in sub-standard housing. This leads to added tension as many of the whites, who live in the suburbs and townships surrounding the city, blame the black population for the high crime rate.

Leonard does not entirely avoids these issues: Killshot (1989) makes some interesting comparisons between crime-ridden Detroit and rural Michigan, an area dominated by hunters and Evangelical Christians. 52 Pick-Up (1974) features a scene in which a coach full of tourists on a historical tour of Detroit is held-up, and all the passengers have their belongings stolen. Fairly shocking, but to my knowledge Detroit is now considered too dangerous to run historical tours. My wife is from Detroit, and I’ve come to know the city quite well over the past few years. I like it, and I hope one day it will reclaim its former reputation as being one of America’s greatest cities. Before then, it will have to move on from the damage inflicted by the corrupt Mayoralty of Kwame Kilpatrick, and the shocking story reported in the Times that the city can no longer afford to bury its own dead.

The last time I was in Detroit was this past summer, and the big news story was of a shootout at a city bus-stop. You can watch footage of the incident below.

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