Monday, January 26, 2009


Jitterbug: A Novel of Detroit, by Loren D. Estleman

I just last night finished a great mystery—it’s called “Jitterbug: A Novel of Detroit”.  Really, it should be called “A Novel of the Detroit Area”, because I grew up in the area and when reading it I yelped with delight every time that the author mentioned somewhere I recognized.

“Jitterbug” is set in Detroit during World War II—specifically in 1943, which will factor into the plot later on.  It is told from the point of view of the three characters around whom the events of the year unfold.  Dwight Littlejohn, an African-American man who relocated to Michigan from Alabama, works in a bomber plant in Ypsilanti.  Max Zagreb, a police lieutenant, runs a four-man squad known as the “Horsemen” who handle racketeering and black-market crimes.  The third protagonist is the killer, a man rejected from the Army but obsessed with serving his country by punishing “hoarders”—people who unpatriotically store up their ration coupons!  Our story follows Zagreb, Littlejohn, and the killer by turns as Zagreb tries to catch the killer and the racial tensions heat up in the newly integrating city. 

Dwight Littlejohn’s brother lives the newly opened Sojourner Truth housing projects in Detroit, whose white neighbors were so indignant that police escorts were needed to let the residents move in.  Like the Littlejohns, many African-Americans migrated from other parts of the country for the opportunity to work in Detroit’s factories, pushing the existing culture of the city to keep up.  Events come to a head as the killer loses control and the police struggle to contain rumors and outrage surrounding a supposed rape and murder on Belle Else, a park on the Detroit River.     

The historical events of 1943 surround and pervade the straightforward whodunit story that Estleman is telling.  For some characters, such as Dwight Littlejohn, the circumstances leading up to the race riots of ’43 are central to his life.  For others, such as the killer, the war provides a rationalization for his homicidal habits.  This story is a great example of the ways that social and political circumstances are meshed together in this web of history and culture.

This book was a really fun read mainly because of all the historical facts embedded in the story.  I picked it up off the shelf at the library because of the title, and was surprised to see that most of the author’s other books (at least at my library branch) were Westerns.  After looking on Amazon, I'm happy to see he write more books in this type of historical vein.  

One reason I love the history in the novel is because of my own history—I grew up in “the wilds of Oakland County” as one character calls it; I work in Ypsilanti just couple of streets over from Dwight Littlejohn’s fictional boardinghouse; both of my father’s parents grew up in Detroit; and in the riots of 1943 my great-grandfather was a City of Detroit cop.  My family recently found a picture of him that had run in the Detroit News that week of the riots.  He’s in uniform with his police-issue rifle standing in the street next to an overturned car.  To me, this kind of history is fascinating to find.  Understanding the history of the Detroit area is of course crucial to understanding what it is today, but more than that, I’ve recently begun to feel a lot of pride and depth in being a fourth-generation Michigander whose family has lived in three counties for the last sixty years.  I think this is what they call “roots”.  The Detroit riot of 1943 is also mostly forgotten, especially in light of the events of 1967.  So if any of you are interested in learning more while enjoying a straightforward police procedural, pick up “Jitterbug”.

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