by Michael Niewodowski
In memory of Elmore Leonard 1925-2013
“Now, now-lay off Detroit. Them people is livin’ in Mad Max times.” –Moe Szyslak, “The Simpsons”
When I think of gritty crime novels, I think of Elmore Leonard. When I think of crime ridden cities, I think of Detroit, Michigan. City Primeval combines these two for the best (and worst) of both worlds.
The novel’s two main characters are Raymond Cruz, a hard-boiled but noble homicide detective, and Clement Mansell (aka The Oklahoma Wildman), a homicidal maniac. Mansell knows how easy it is to get away with murder in Detroit; with his lawyer, he exploits every loophole in the legal system, most notably a purposefully delayed court trial that allows him to walk free after being convicted of a triple homicide. For no reason at all, Mansell murders (an infamously corrupt) Detroit judge. Although there is no personal vendetta between Mansell and Cruz, the Oklahoma Wildman challenges the good cop to a duel; the subtitle of the novel is “High Noon in Detroit”. Of course, Mansell has no plans to stop killing before the showdown…..
Like any Leonard novel, there are lots of ins and outs, dead ends, twists, and sudden turns. The backdrop is a terrifyingly violent metropolis full of racism, sexual violence, corrupt government, abuse of power, and senseless murder. Leonard does not attempt to qualify any of this; it simply exists as the backdrop that is Detroit against which he draws his maze.
Although I’ve never been to Detroit, I know something about living in a crime ridden city. I spent three years in college in Steubenville, Ohio. An old-school steel town, Steubenville had far passed its prime by the early 1990s, and had fallen into depression and crime. The Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I attended school, was an anomaly in the city, an isolated group of ultra-conservative, yet charismatic Catholics who seemed more interested in proselytizing than higher education.
My friends and I did not see eye to eye with the fundamentalists or the overarching administration, and we moved off campus. We soon learned that the Jesus freaks on the hill were not nearly as much of a concern as our new neighbors in the depressed Steubenville area. Dangerous gangs roamed the streets, a friend’s house was hit by bullets, and we learned to never go out at night alone. A few years after I left Steubenville, in my former neighborhood, for no reason at all, a pair violent criminals kidnapped and murdered two off-campus University students execution style.
(Respect and love for the families and friends of the victims.)
I have lived in such amazing places as London England, New York City, the countryside of Austria, the Suncoast of Spain, and the gulf coast of Florida. London England fell quickly on the heels of Steubenville, and it stands out as the most glorious place I’ve ever lived. Meanwhile, Steubenville remains in my memory as the biggest shit-hole I’ve ever lived in. I wonder, however, if London would have seemed quite as glorious if it hadn’t followed the bleakness of Steubenville.
Novels like City Primeval show us the darkness so that we may more fully appreciate the light.