D.E. (Dan) Johnson’s literary debut, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published by St. Martin ‘s Minotaur in September 2010. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, was published by Minotaur in September 2011. Dan is a history buff with a special interest in early twentieth century Detroit. As he writes on his web page, “Dan comes by his interest in automotive history honestly. His grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors, beginning work with Checker in 1924 and continuing until 1980. Fortunately, Dan doesn’t come by his interest in murder the same way.”
Tell me about “Detroit Shuffle.”
Detroit Shuffle is a mystery set in 1912 Detroit, in the middle of the era’s biggest (real life) political scandals: in the summer, all but one of the city council members were arrested for accepting bribes, and in the fall, women’s suffrage was on the ballot, and a group of conspirators tried to rig the election. Will Anderson, the protagonist, weaves through these situations while trying to discover who is attempting to kill his girlfriend, who is a militant suffragist. It’s a challenge, especially because no one else believes someone is trying to assassinate her.
Your books all have Detroit themes. What is it about Detroit that piques your imagination?
Detroit was once known as the “Paris of the West.” It was an amazing city of parks and boulevards, culture, and success. During my lifetime, the city has been in decline–until recently. I thought people should see what the city was like in its heyday and what it might be again.
How do you go about researching your novels?
I do a lot of research at the Detroit Public Library. They have the archives of all the major newspapers of the day, which are the best source of information about what people were thinking and talking about during this time. Most of the information on these scandals has never been put in a book, so that “on the ground” researching is necessary. I have a lot of early electric car information in my books, and I’ve gotten most of that from the Henry Ford Museum. They have a great research facility.
Which comes first– Does historical research inspire ideas for your plots or do you start with a plot and then research the period?
That’s a good question. I look at the historical events as the backdrop of the story. In my books I have told the stories of the rise and fall of the early electric car, Detroit’s first mob war, Wayne County’s massive asylum, Eloise Hospital, and early political scandals. Those are really the major subplot in each book. The real plot is the story of trying to catch a killer.
What do you like to read? Are mysteries your favorite genre as a reader?
I read a wide variety of novels: literary, historical, thrillers, but most of my favorite authors write mysteries. When I started writing, my goal was to marry E.L. Doctorow and Elmore Leonard, a Herculean task. I’m not really sure it’s possible for anyone to do that, but we have to have goals, right?
What is your process as a writer?
My process is to sit my butt down in my chair and write. I have a full-time job, so I don’t have the luxury of waiting for my muse to come calling. I get up very early in the morning and write, and I spend most of my weekends writing too. Of course, there is a lot of mental work being done in my downtime as well. I need to be able to visualize at least the beginning of a scene to be able to write it. Once I get going, my brain hijacks my consciousness and continues.
Do you have any literary pet peeves?
I wouldn’t say I have any particular pet peeves other than bad writing.
Do you have any new books in the pipeline?
I am just finishing my first book set in Chicago. It’s a mystery that takes place in 1874 in the middle of the country’s first major depression. The dual protagonists are a fifteen-year-old orphan and her uncle, who she didn’t know existed until her father died. He believes that her father was poisoned, which is contrary to the doctor’s opinion–that he died from simple heart failure. The uncle enlists the girl to help him investigate. Oh, and he’s a resurrectionist–one of those guys who digs up bodies to sell to medical schools. He became a resurrectionist to investigate deaths similar to his mother’s, who he is certain was murdered with the same poison that killed his brother.
I’m not certain at this point when this one will be published.
You can learn more about D.E. Johnson and his mysteries on his web page.