Books: The Detroit Electric Scheme, by D.E. Johnson

Dan Johnson’s mystery novel is driven by Detroit’s early automotive years

In the opening scene of Dan Johnson’s soon-to-be-released debut novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme, John Cooper is in a bad way. It’s November 1910, and the security boss of the Anderson Carriage Co. has been found at the foot of a huge hydraulic press — well, the lower half of him has. The upper half — what’s left of it — has been smashed into the shape and consistency of a hamburger patty.

Cooper’s grisly murder sets in motion a page-turning odyssey through the Detroit underworld by Will Anderson, son of the company president and the prime suspect. Pursued by cops and a blackmailer, Anderson struggles to find the killers while also trying to save his true love (and the victim’s fiancée), Elizabeth Hume, who also seems destined for a bad end. It’s an entertaining and briskly told tale, with a few twists to keep readers happy. Local novelist Loren Estleman liked it well enough in manuscript form to attach his own praise as Johnson shopped it around to agents. “A Les Miserables for the American Experience,” Estleman wrote. “Part Noir, part tale of obsession and persecution, and all historically sound….”

Like poor John Cooper, Johnson knows the feeling of not being quite all there at work. In his “square” job, the 51-year-old author manages a real-estate office in Kalamazoo, doing his best to resist any sustained creative thinking until he’s free of the 9-to-5 shackles and can return to his real passion.

“I get up at 5 every morning and squeeze in a couple hours of writing before work,” says Johnson, who’s hurrying to meet his deadline for a sequel to the historical mystery that will be rooted in the early years of industrial Detroit. “On Saturdays and Sundays, I write all day.” As onerous as that sounds, Johnson considers himself fortunate. He always wanted to be a writer. Now he is. How he got to that point is instructive, even inspirational.

Johnson graduated from Central Michigan University in 1980 with a degree in education, but quickly decided he had neither the patience nor the drive to be a teacher. “My first job out of college was selling stereos at Ollie Fretter’s,” he says. “My parents were so proud of me.”

Before he knew it, 26 years had flown by, and he had gotten married, brought up three daughters, and was running a pair of home-electronics stores with 110 employees. He also was suffering a midlife crisis.

“I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, but it’s hard to quit a job when you’re the owner,” he says. Johnson sold the business in 2006, a move that finally freed him to work full time on writing a novel. “I’d been writing since I was a kid, but to make a living doing it seemed like a pipe dream. I’d started a number of books before selling the business, but I decided I really needed to learn the process before I tried again.” For two years, he did nothing but work on his craft, taking online courses, joining a workshop, and producing a book manuscript that went nowhere. “It was called Motown Miracle, about a guy who gets in an accident and wakes up being able to perform miracles. I guess you’d call the genre religious satire. Not a real strong market for it, obviously.”

Still, “it was really good training,” he says of the constant revising and the critiques. “The biggest thing I needed help in was plotting, learning how to start and end a book. It’s easy to write 300 pages without going somewhere.”

In addition to perseverance and a strong work ethic, Johnson had one other factor in his favor: his family’s support. “My wife, Shelly, and I have always encouraged our kids to do what they want to do in life,” he says. “When I was pursuing what seemed like this unobtainable goal of mine, they were all for it. They said, ‘You helped us get to where we are, why don’t you do it, too?’ ”

The cheerleading sounded hollow after the person who had bought Johnson’s business went under, “owing me a whole lot of money,” Johnson says. He took jobs as a substitute teacher and worked for the Census Bureau for $15 an hour and 55 cents a mile. Throughout, he continued working on the manuscript that became The Detroit Electric Scheme, a story that built on his lifelong interest in history, especially Detroit’s colorful automotive past. The pages are filled with real-life characters, such as Henry Ford’s sensitive and browbeaten son, Edsel, the brawling Dodge Brothers, and dapper Vito Adamo, the city’s first crime boss. He took some liberties. While there really was a William C. Anderson who was the president of Detroit Electric, he had no children.

“Luckily for me, the history of the auto industry is very well-documented. For example, there’s the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library, where I could also access microfilm copies of The Detroit News and Free Press,” he says. “The Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn also was a great place to dig around in. I found old sales brochures and service manuals for the Detroit Electric and found tons of other material that helped me get a sense of what the cars and factories were like back then. I studied photographs. There also was man named Galen Handy, who kept the Detroit Electric’s company archives for many years. He was a huge help.”

Johnson has gasoline in his genes. His grandfather, Ralph Oakland, worked at Checker Motors from 1924 to 1980, retiring as vice president and treasurer of the Kalamazoo-based manufacturer of Checker cabs. Johnson’s Checkered past includes appearing in a magazine ad for the company when he was 6. “No wonder they went under,” he says.

Johnson’s research helped him gain an appreciation for what Detroit was like at the turn of the last century: a confident, ambitious, big-shouldered community on the cusp of greatness. “I grew up knowing only the bad about the city — the ’67 riot, the crime, the white flight — so to see it as it was in its heyday really was an eye-opener for me,” he says.

Johnson started querying agents in the spring of 2009, about the time he landed his present full-time job as an office manager. “I ruled out self-publishing,” he says. “What was the sense if a real publisher didn’t think it was good enough?” He boldly approached Estleman at a book reading, and the author of the Amos Walker mystery series suggested the name of an agent. Soon, an editor at St. Martin’s Press had negotiated a two-book deal with the freshly minted D.E. Johnson. “Dan Johnson is about as unmemorable a name as you can have,” he explains.

The advance money for first-time novelists isn’t much, and Johnson admits trying to have a life outside his regular gig and his writing schedule will remain difficult for the foreseeable future. “I imagine at some point I’ll look at all this a little bit differently. But for now, I’m just enjoying the ride.”