Say Nice Things About Detroit by Scott Lasser (W.W. Norton, $25.95 hardcover, 9780393082999, July 2, 2012)
Scott Lasser's Say Nice Things About Detroit is a harsh, but also tender, homage to his native city that tackles the city's racial tensions head on. It has a dramatic opening--the double murder of a retired black FBI agent and a beautiful single white woman in the front seat of his tinted window Mercedes. This is not a typical urban murder about sex and drugs, though: Dirk Burton and Natalie Brooks were brother and sister, sharing the same German immigrant mother who left Dirk and his African-American father, then married an Englishman who fathered Natalie. Her children grew up in very different, racially segregated neighborhoods with very different opportunities and expectations.
Detroit is a place where they don't ask where you're from; if you're there, you're from there--nobody moves to Detroit any more, unless they're moving back, like Natalie's ex-boyfriend David, a divorced lawyer in Denver who comes home to help his father deal with his mother's dementia. Natalie's younger sister Carolyn, unhappily married in Los Angeles, returns for her sister's funeral. David reconnects with Carolyn and they find their troubled lives rejuvenated in a passionate love affair. She has a recalcitrant teenage son; David's equally distant son was killed in an auto accident. Both regret parental failings, but when she becomes pregnant with David's child, they decide to move back to Detroit to raise their child together. Although she cautiously suggests "it's like moving back to Hiroshima," he answers, "But people live there now, I'm pretty sure."
They feel the pull of Detroit's refreshingly dogged determination, "with its lesser stores of social pressure and conspicuous consumption; with its unsettled weather; with its lowered expectations of how well things might turn out.... Here you learned you had to work hard." Things are not so simple, however; there's the double murder to resolve, failing parents to care for and even more complicated inter-racial family dynamics that threaten to jeopardize their romance.
Lasser (Battle Creek) is no Johnny-come-lately Detroit promoter; he knows which side of 8 Mile Road matters, and his intimate understanding of the city makes for a captivating novel rich with details of the local vernacular, weather, food, music, crime and, of course, cars. While the double murder and diverse characters drive the narrative, the city itself plays a central role. Detroit is not just the setting for Lasser's story--it's a place with a beating heart (weak pulse notwithstanding) and enough guts to have a future. --Bruce Jacobs
Labels: Book Reveiw, Crime fiction, detroit, mystery, Scott Lasser