Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Motor City Blue: Loren D. Estleman

The protagonist of this book is a private eye in Detroit, The book was first published in 1980 and is set around that time. Sometimes I don't care for PI novels and I have tried to figure out why. The ones I have difficulties with seem too much a copy of the plots and style of the early authors of PI novels, specifically Raymond Chandler. Too much emphasis on metaphor and flip remarks, and all the characters seem to be seedy and / or sleazy. There is nothing wrong with that, what I object to when the stories don't feel original.

I think I have read that the PI novel, the hard-boiled novels of Chandler and Hammett were a turning away from the artificiality and unrealistic novels of the Golden Age authors. I won't argue that the hard-boiled novels of the 30s and 40s are realistic portrayals of someone's life somewhere, but I have had no experience with criminals and most of the people I know haven't had any connection with this sort of life.


Anyway, to get to this novel. Amos Walker currently works for an insurance agency, following up on claims to verify if they are legitimate. His assignment is to check out a man who was injured and now cannot walk without canes and braces on his legs. And to get evidence if he is trying to cheat the insurance company.

As often happens in this type of novel, the everyday work Amos does is interrupted by other more exciting cases. Two events happen on the same day. He sees an old acquaintance and is witness to him being taken away forcefully by some sleazy looking characters. And then, an old gangster who is semi-retired calls him in to find his missing ward, the daughter of his deceased partner. Ben Morningstar is someone you don't say no to, so he ends up working for him.

The plot gets very complicated. There are a couple of policemen who are decent, but beyond that almost the only likable character is our hero, Amos. He is a decent guy, but he lives and works in a sleazy world filled with crooked and sometimes very evil people.

You could say this is a little bit beyond my comfort level in a mystery novel, but I enjoyed  it regardless. The writing was beautiful and the author kept me engaged in the story. This was a book I couldn't put down once I got to the last 100 pages (out of about 250). There were the standard metaphors but not enough to take me out of the story. I did not find the story any more (or less) believable than the police procedurals or thrillers I read.  There were some very interesting characters portrayed without resorting to stereotypes.

One thing that makes this book special is that the author is obvious a lover of movies, especially old movies. Humphrey Bogart movies are mentioned a lot, and Amos has a conversation about movies with the gangster's black driver.

How did this book reflect life in 1980? Well, the setting is Detroit after the riots. The character never says, but I assume he is referring to the 1967 riots. He talks in passing about the effect of the riots and the changes in the city since then. There are connections to the music industry. Relationships between blacks and whites are portrayed. I don't know much about the history of this area, before or after 1980, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of the book. However, the author lives in Michigan near to Detroit, and has written another crime fiction series known as the Detroit Novels. So I am guessing he gets it right.

There are a lot of good quotes from the book, which is another way I can tell a good book.

The first lines...
Faces from the past are best left there. If, two hundred odd pages from now, you agree with me, this will all be worthwhile. 
Walker describes himself this way:
I'm thirty-two years old. I was raised in a little town you never heard of about forty miles west of here. I've a bachelor's degree in sociology; don't ask me why. I tried being a cop, but that wasn't for me, so I let myself get drafted. The army taught me how to kill things and sent me out to do it. I liked almost everything about it except for the uniform, so when I got out, I looked for a way to do the same thing without wearing one.
A reference to one of my favorite movie and TV stars, Roy Rogers:
I hurled myself sideways toward the mutilated mattress at my left, the idea being to land on my shoulder, twist and fire, maybe hitting something worthwhile, maybe not. I hadn't a hell of a lot to lose by trying.
It did not work, of course. Tricks like that never do, unless you wear spangled buckskins and own a horse named Trigger. 
Will I be reading more of the series? For sure. There are several other series to try, also. See this list of all of Estleman's works, which includes crime fiction, westerns, and non-fiction.

This book is my choice for 1980 for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences.

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Publisher:  Ballantine Books, 1986. Orig. pub. 1980.
Length:     248 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Amos Walker, #1
Setting:     Detroit, Michigan
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    My husband found this for me in San Jose, CA, Nov. 2005.


27 comments:

  1. He is a Detroit icon. I have heard him speak several times and he is always entertaining, modest.

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    1. That does not surprise me, Patti. I read a couple of interviews with Estleman and it sounded like he is both of those things. I look forward to reading more of his books and some short stories too.

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  2. You make such a well-taken point, Tracy, about a lot of PI novels. Like you, I prefer PI novels where there is something new - something rich that's not just a homage to Chandler (meaning no disrespect to his memory, of course). The foundation of the PI novel is important, but so are new developments. Glad you enjoyed this one.

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    1. I did like this one, and I look forward to trying his Valentino series, about a film achivist. It is lighter in tone (I have heard) but should be interesting.

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  3. I've literally been circling this series for 30 years but have yet to make the leap - hmm, shall ponder a little further, but thanks Tracy!

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    1. I have only dipped into this one book, Sergio, but I have been interested in the Detroit series also. And the Valentino series as I mention above.

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  4. This book is much more a part of its time than the later Amos Walker books. Motor City Blue reads very much like a novel of the 70s, where the later ones have more of a timeless quality. A good book, though I think the one where Estelman's style was fully developed was the third, The Midnight Man.

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    1. Thanks for the tip, Graham. I have Angel Eyes and The Midnight Man and I hope to find some more at an annual book sale I go to each year.

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    1. I was glad I finally read this book, John.

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  6. Check out PEEPER, Estleman's spoof of the P.I. tale.

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    1. That sounds very interesting, Barry. I will be on the lookout for that one.

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  7. Tracy, as with some other authors, I have read Estleman's westerns but not his detective fiction. I remember liking his easy-paced writing style.

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    1. Prashant, I am definitely going to read some of his westerns also.

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  8. I've yet to read one of these, but am always tempted when reading a review. Maybe this time.

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    1. He has written a variety of books and series, Richard, so lots to choose from. I have only tried this one though.

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  9. Tracy, I've fallen off the ' Crime Fiction ' bandwagon and have trouble getting back on!
    I have a trivia question for you: Is there a CF writer that has ever won a Pulitzer Prize?
    I'm currently trying to read Pultizer Prize winning authors...and perhaps I could combine that with a CF read. #JustAsking :)

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    1. That is an interesting question, Nancy. I don't know the answer for sure but I did not find a book that truly fits the bill. There are some that might edge over into crime fiction, depending on how you define the genre. But no books that are truly straight crime fiction. Sorry I don't have a better answer than that, but I enjoyed looking into it.

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  10. I have this one and am so glad you enjoyed it. Can't say when I'll read it but I hope to read it very soon.

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    1. I think you will find this series and this author worth your time, Keishon.

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  11. I have a couple of his Amos Walker mysteries but not this one. I was tempted by the series, but couldn't really entertain the thought of adding a load more books, I'd just as likely never get around to reading. I settled for his Peter Macklin (hitman) series instead!

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    1. I really liked this one and am eager to try more, Col. Want to try some of all his series. Glen wants to try the Valentino series about the movie industry (and me too). I did not realize Macklin was a hit man but that sounds fine too.

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    2. I have his standalone GAS CITY, which I might read first.

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    3. That one does sound good. I remember seeing the book a while back and thinking what a great cover it has.

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  12. Well, I'll express a different viewpoint. I didn't like this book at all. I've seldom read prose that could be so well described by the adjectives "turgid" and "overblown." I had to force myself to keep reading. I finished the thing, though. I get to the point where I feel that if I give up, I've wasted all the time spent getting to this point.

    So good thing it's not a long novel. The basic story is all right. It's just bad writing.

    I've read two of Estleman's newer Amos Walker books and thought they were decent. I'll probably pick up more as I see them.

    (And that author picture on the back of the hardcover edition: hilarious!!!)

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    1. Howard, different viewpoints are always welcome. I did enjoy reading this one, but most of the characters were so evil and immoral, in some ways that was hard for me to relate to.

      My husband is currently reading Frames, a mystery by the same author about a film achivist, and he is enjoying it a lot. He likes the character, the setting, and reading about films.

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    2. If you haven't seen the author picture I have a scan. It's worth a view; I found it very funny. If you want to see it, tell me where to send it.

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