Set in the mid-’60s, when Barry McGuire’s ”Eve of Destruction” jangled prophetically from everybody’s car radio — in other words, right before all hell broke loose in America’s cities — Motown is the second novel in Loren D. Estleman’s ambitious crime-in-Detroit series. But unlike the first installment, last year’s Prohibition-era thriller Whiskey River, Estleman has more on his mind now than orchestrating another good read. Politically shrewd and dryly cynical, Motown seems closer to the street novels of George V. Higgins or Jimmy Breslin than it does to the fanciful extravaganzas of Elmore Leonard.
The narrative is split into three parallel story lines, only two of which ever intersect, and then only briefly. Rick Amery, an undercover cop ”forced to throw in his shield” for accepting a gratuity (a year’s free lease on a white ’64 Thunderbird), is recruited by an internal security man at General Motors to dig up dirt on consumer activist Wendell Porter (read Ralph Nader), whose muckraking reports have got the automotive industry squirming. At the same time that Amery is infiltrating the Porter Group, Lew Canada, a police inspector on special assignment for the mayor of Detroit, is trying to mount a smear campaign of his own. Canada’s target is the mob-connected president of the American Steelhauler’s Association (read Jimmy Hoffa). Meanwhile, Quincy Springfield, who runs a policy operation from his after-hours club, is being squeezed out of business by local Mafia capo Patsy Orr. Patsy wants to regain control of the numbers racket in Detroit’s black neighborhoods, but he’s so out of touch with the times that he can’t foresee that his old-fashioned turf war might escalate into a catastrophic race war.
The setup is impressive, but as the stories develop, they develop too predictably, and while Estleman occasionally delivers a big scene, more often he cuts away just before significant action, then recaps it later in conversation. No matter how witty the dialogue, a talking head is still a talking head. And with the exception of Lew Canada, whose confinement in a POW camp during World War II has turned him into a cleanliness fanatic, none of the major characters is ever more than two-dimensional — entertaining, good company, but two-dimensional nonetheless. (The secondary characters, though, are all wonderfully vivid: an acne-plagued Porter volunteer who develops a crush on Amery; a fiery black activist who started out as a soul singer, only to be rejected by Berry Gordy because his ”English was too good”; a sweet-natured hustler who’s done in by lung cancer before a Vegas hit man can have a crack at him.)
For all its convincing detail and narrative webwork, its clear intelligence and athletic prose, Motown, in the end, feels like a labor of love that somehow turned into a rush job. B