When I first started writing stories I was writing fantasy and science fiction that didn’t have any grounding in the real world (or science, or logic, or common sense, etc.) so setting and characters were never a concern. As I moved into crime fiction I wrote about Flint, MI, but in such a generic way that it could have been any town in America. It wasn’t until I met my wife and we started going downtown Detroit alot for football games, restaurants, and casinos that I really started thinking alot about where I wanted to set my stories.
From a setting standpoint, Detroit is such a great place for stories. There are gorgeous buildings, dramatic ruins, quirky areas, scary areas, opulent areas, and waterfront areas all with a grand sense of history and dispair that is perfect for crime fiction. From a character standpoint though it provides a bit of a challenge. See, I am white and Detroit is almost entirely black.
There are pockets here and there like Southwest Detroit which is mostly hispanic and the Midtown and College Cultural areas that are mostly white students, but the majority of residents are black. For short stories this hasn’t been much of an issue. They have a small number of characters so if there are no black characters, or only one black character, it’s not so obvious. But when it comes to novels, that’s where it gets more complicated.
The first real Detroit novel I attempted was RUINS OF DETROIT that started with so much potential to address and comment on the racial history and politics of the city. As perfect as Detroit is for set pieces, it’s even more perfect for corruption stories. But to understand the corruption truly, you have to understand the racial issues. There have always been corrupt major cities (cough, Chicago and Los Angeles, cough) but the majority of citizens didn’t care as long as their city was prosperous and their basic needs were met. Detroit is a rare case of a city that is a failure but still remains corrupt and I think a lot of this has to do with the insular black community and culture.
When Kwame Kilpatrick was elected to his second term as Mayor of Detroit, it was under a huge cloud of suspiscion, but he won easily because of his popularity as a black cultural figure. Even now, without any question regarding his corrupt nature, there are many who believe, and I am one of them, if he were legally able to run for mayor again he would win easily.
But these are just the shallow observations of an outsider both culturally and geographically. It’s not to say white people can’t write about black culture. David Simon and, to a lesser extent, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, have done a great job of doing just that. But they are writers of the new social novels, which I have realized I am not, nor do I have the desire to be. My Detroit model is Elmore Leonard. His early Detroit crime novels are great characters studies and they present and interesting picture of Detroit, but they don’t dig into any social depth of issues regarding race relations on a regular basis. And as my favorite Leonard books are some of the later books, I noticed he gradually moved more of his action into the suburbs and outside of Detroit entirely.
This is the dillema I face. The sorts of characters I like to write about and have a cultural connection to are the blue collar whites. The shop workers, and mechanics, and waitresses, and bartenders, and grocery clerks, and such. These people live on the outskirts of Detroit in Taylor, Allen Park, Wayne, and Romeo. They are also in the richer northern suburbs of Oakland County. Unfortunately, from a location standpoint these are all pretty bland areas. So I’ve been creating a kind of hybrid story where characters originate on the outskirts of Detroit and then head to the city to cause their trouble. This makes it fun for me but I wonder if it’s an honest enough portrait of the city.
Eventually I’m sure my artistic ambition will get the best of me and I’ll dig into a deeper novel about race and Detroit, but for now this is what I’ve found allows me to work as honestly as I can and still tell an interesting story in an interesting city.