July 2012

In Michigan’s ghost town

By Scott Lasser
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Whether it’s founded on a reputation for rampant crime or the recent travails of the automobile industry, is there any American city more maligned than Detroit? It’s something of an act of authorial courage, then, that Scott Lasser has chosen to set his fourth novel in the Motor City, but with Detroit taking its first halting steps toward a revival, the setting seems eminently fitting for a story about fresh starts and second chances.

When lawyer David Halpert returns to Michigan from Denver to help care for his mother, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he’s greeted by the shocking news that an ex-girlfriend and her stepbrother, a retired FBI undercover agent, have been gunned down in Detroit’s Greektown neighborhood. Through those killings he reconnects with Carolyn Evans, sister of the murdered woman, and meets Marlon Booker, a young man who’s struggling to slip the tightening bonds of the drug trade and linked by a family friendship to the other victim.

Blending an uncluttered, fast-moving plot with more character development than is sometimes evident in popular fiction, Lasser seems as interested in exploring David’s sorrow over the death of his teenage son in an automobile accident or the emotional pull of his attraction to Carolyn as he is in unraveling the mystery that’s centered in Marlon’s dangerous world.

Though he’s chosen to set the novel’s main action in 2006, with some of Detroit’s worst days still ahead, Lasser effectively highlights the racial and economic tensions that have plagued the city for decades. He understands, for one thing, that Eight Mile Road, made famous by Eminem, is much more than a physical boundary separating the city from its more affluent suburbs. That sharp divide is symbolized by David’s decision to move into the Palmer Woods neighborhood, once home to wealthy Detroiters who have long since departed for mostly white enclaves. It’s a brave choice that’s greeted with skepticism by his African-American neighbors and a decision that’s revelatory of his character.

It’s not likely many readers will come away from Say Nice Things About Detroit with their perceptions of that beleaguered city fundamentally changed, but this appealing story may prompt some to hope it will receive the chance at redemption that Scott Lasser so generously extends to his characters.

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