"MOTOWN" is one of those gritty & spicy crime novels that engages the reader's interest once he/she takes it up. Once again, Detroit is center stage, a prosperous city on the cusp of a change of cataclysmic proportions. The time is 1966. Rick Amstey, a former police officer in his late 30s dismissed for misconduct, goes out for a ride in his landlady’s candy-apple red GTO sports car. He eats, drinks, and lives cars. He is a rather carefree soul whenever he puts the pedal to the metal. Speed is his drug and in that era with the auto industry as king, Rick is an unabashed worshipper of heavy metal on wheels. But with the return of his landlady’s son from Army service, Rick has to relinquish use of the GTO (which the landlady had reserved for her son).
At that point, Rick opts to move out and moves into an apartment in Highland Park, an autonomous city set in the midst of the City of Detroit. He has now reached a crossroads in his life, and just when it seems to him that everything is tied up in knots, Rick is sought out by one of his ex-police buddies (now employed by General Motors) to take on a special security job for him. In recent years, a crusading lawyer (Wendell Porter) has been making himself a thorn in the flesh of the auto industry through his investigative work into auto safety issues. The auto industry had long been used to having things its own way, both in Detroit and across the nation. Porter’s reports have already caused some ruffles in Washington, where he has caught the interest of some members of Congress. (Automobiles of that era DID NOT HAVE SAFETY BELTS. So for anyone involved in an auto accident, there was no protection. Injuries were horrific, and at almost any speed, drivers and passenger(s) alike caught up in a collision would find themselves in what had become a steel prison.) Rick goes undercover as a volunteer worker in Porter’s Detroit office, where he ingratiates himself with the staff and eventually gets the attention of Wendell Porter himself.
Besides Rick’s story, Estleman offers up for the reader a colorful cast of characters:
1) Quincy Bridgefield, a Black gang leader who also figures prominently in the city’s numbers racket and runs a blind pig establishment offering off-hours liquor and entertainment.
2) Lydell Lafayette, Quincy’s buddy and partner in crime.
3) Krystal, Quincy’s petite and fiery girlfriend, a onetime prostitute
4) “Mahoumet” a local college educated Black man who assumes a quasi-Malcolm X influence as an advocate for Black empowerment.
5) Inspector Lew Canada, the head of the police’s special investigations unit; Sergeant Esther, who is Canada’s assistant; and
6) “Patsy” Orr, a local Mafioso set on tightening his hold on Detroit’s criminal networks).
There are also, for those readers already familiar with Estleman’s other crime novels in this series (“The Detroit Crime Mystery Series”) a few familiar characters from the past: Connie Minor; Frankie Orr (Patsy’s father, a former Mafia overlord in Detroit now exiled to Sicily); and Beatrice Blackwood, a Jamaican in her early 50s who has quietly run a massage parlor in the city for years. Furthermore, there are brief appearances made by real people who figured prominently in Detroit in the 1960s: Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh and Police Commissioner Ray Girardin.
“MOTOWN” is a novel of Dickensian scope which offers a view of a city, whose layers --- spread out like an onion on a chopping board --- reveal a rich and compelling drama. It left me wanting more.