Thursday, April 28, 2011

Author D. E. Johnson Speaks at the Library

By Frank Boles

On April 11, 2011 D. E. Johnson spoke at the library.  Author of The Detroit Electric Scheme: A Mystery (New York Minotaur Books, 2010), Mr. Johnson was among those honored this year by the Library of Michigan as a recipient of the Michigan Notable Book Award.

Mr. Johnson’s presentation began with a short reading from his book in which he swiftly and surely dispatched the novel’s victim inside of the Detroit Electric Company, and framed the chief suspect. Having set the stage for his mystery, Mr. Johnson then shared with the audience the background to his book.

Although the murder and many of the characters are fiction, the book is rooted in extensive research done by Mr. Johnson about the auto industry and the city of Detroit around 1910.  As Mr. Johnson noted, in 1910 Detroit’s leading industry was not automobiles but the manufacture of cooking stoves. Somehow, though, publishers doubted that contemporary readers would be much interested by a murder set in the city’s then booming “oven industry.”  Automobiles had more cache.

The Detroit Electric was a real car made in Detroit. It began production in 1907. In 1910, the year in which Mr. Johnson sets his book, electric, steam, and gas powered automobiles were all still all being made and sold. The vehicle was the product of a successful Detroit carriage manufacturing firm which understood that the future lay in automobiles and which was seeking to diversify its products. The Detroit Electric reflected the refined tastes of firm’s top-of-the-line opera carriage. The car featured beautiful interior leather work and amenities such as a bud vase as standard equipment. 

Mr. Johnson’s book benefited not only from his research about the Detroit automotive industry and the Detroit Electric but also the city’s personalities and character. Johnson’s research revealed that one of the Detroit Electric’s most devoted customers was Mrs. Henry Ford.  She owned three Detroit Electrics, a fact that likely did not much please her husband as he worked to perfect his gasoline-powered Ford. Then again, Mr. Johnson suggested that Mrs. Ford’s choice of cars many may have been a bit of payback for her husband’s treatment of his family. Ford was a brutal competitor who knew few if any bounds. He went so far as to exploit his and Clara’s only son to obtain his business goals.

At the age of twenty-five, Edsel Ford became president of the car company his father had founded. Rather than a vote of confidence in his son, the promotion was part of Henry’s nefarious business plan to buy out minority stockholders in the firm. Henry Ford wanted sole control of the company. However, the stockholders, to whom he had sold stock in the early days when he desperately needed money and who were now profiting handsomely from Henry’s genius, were not willing to sell.

To change their opinion, Henry put the inexperienced Edsel in charge, knowing that rumors would circulate that the young man wasn’t up to the job and that profits would fall. Henry then added fuel to the fire by suggesting that he was so unhappy with the arrangement he planned to abandon the firm and start a new company.  Stockholders aware of this readily-leaked “inside information” were happy to sell what they “knew” would soon be worthless paper while they could still make a profit. 

Edsel would remain part of the firm for the rest of his relatively short life.  Henry, who outlived Edsel and personally held the firm’s real power regardless of what title his son might have had, would often ignore his son’s often very sound advice and occasionally publicly humiliate him.

Vito Adamo, Detroit’s early mob boss, also finds his way into Mr. Johnson’s  book. Adamo was an enterprising fellow who took Detroit’s turn-of-the-century protection racket to new heights. The “Black Hand” regularly circulated among small businessmen and offered, for a fee, to “protect” the business from “accidents” such as arson or some other calamity. Adamo and his “White Hand” also made the rounds, offering protection to the same businessmen for an additional fee, but including in their list of guarantees that they would prevent the Black Hand from causing trouble.  This, it turned out, was not the beginning of a mob war but a clever marketing scheme -- Adamo controlled both organizations and was twice shaking down the same businesses.

It was a fascinating evening that discussed a dynamic Detroit, where in 1910 only ten percent of its approximately 450,000 residents had been born in Michigan, in which entrepreneurs were on the verge of inventing a new national industry, and in which there were just enough low-lifes to populate an intriguing murder mystery novel. The presentation was made possible in part the Michigan Notable Books Author tour, sponsored by the Library of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education, Cooley Law School, the Library of Michigan Foundation, Auto-Owners Insurance, the Michigan Center for the Book and the Michigan Humanities Council. Media sponsors include WKAR, City Pulse and Queue Advertising and Gennara Photography.