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A Thrilling Noir in Depression-era Detroit - an Editorial Review of "Savage City"

Author Bio:

An award-winning fiction writer and poet, I'm the author of seven Martin Preuss mysteries: In the House of Night (2020), Cold Dark Lies (2019), An Uncertain Accomplice (2018), The Forgotten Child (2017), Guilt in Hiding (2016), The Baker’s Men (2014), and Crimes of Love (2011). My newest novel, Savage City (2021), blends history and fiction during a violent week in 1932 Detroit.

I'm also the author of The House of Grins (1992), a novel; and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs (2005) and New Year’s Tangerine (2007). My poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous print and e-journals.

At various times I have worked as a warehouseman, theatre manager, advertising copywriter, scriptwriter, video producer, and political speechwriter. I am retired dean of the faculty and Professor of English at the former Marygrove College in Detroit. My wife, artist Suzanne Allen, and I split our time between Florida and Ferndale, Michigan (the setting for the Preuss series).

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Editorial Review:

''Clarence never talks about his days. Going through them is bad enough without having to relive them in the retelling.''

'' Elizabeth takes another sip from the bottle. The gin burns all the way down. It makes her stomach turn over and her head spin, ands she remembers she hasn't eaten since lunch.''

Two tiny snippets from the very first chapters of Donald Levin's remarkable 'Savage City'; a chilling and superb series of acutely drawn portraits of four individuals over a period of a week in a bitterly cold March in Detroit in 1932. Leading seemingly quite separate existences in this troubled city, their lives become indivisible and interwoven over a very short period of time. What all four of the protagonists share in common is a sense of failure and a depressed and impotent anger at the life they are living, a shared rage against the system that has shaped and enslaved them. They are, all of them, kicking without effect against a series of heavily bolted doors. All the necessary ingredients for a thrilling 'film noir' set against the bleak and chilling backdrop of a freezing cold Depression era Detroit are present. Scandal and corruption is everywhere, in Government and in the Police Force. Crime of the very worst type is omnipresent, a daily, dreary commonplace. That which isn't being controlled by the Police themselves is in the hands of the Sicilian Mafia and other competing gangs. At lower levels, in the large Hispanic and black and Jewish communities, for example, crime and violence, deprivation and unemployment in the desperately wretched communities is endemic. It is, of course, the time of the Great Depression and of Prohibition, a 'sine na quon' for all that Levin mercilessly reveals and dissects, as if with a surgeon's scalpel.

Four very disparate and totally unconnected people are about to experience the most chaotic and disturbing week of their lives. It will be a week that will bring them all into close proximity in a violent spiral of events that will affect their lives forever.

Clarence Brown is a rare thing; a black detective in the Detroit Police force. In his precinct there is only one other black cop. He is a very big man, tough, hard boiled and wearily cynical from his experiences on the streets in the rougher parts of Detroit. He is married to Bessie, both mourning the loss of a young son. In his rare moments of relaxation he is a devoted jazz fan and an old hand at training young black boys for baseball and in organising fixtures for a black league. Most days he is on the streets and involved in dealing with small time crime and sleaze. His life brings him into daily contact with a veritable galaxy of people, from low life petty criminals to major players in the world of crime. He knows them all, their activities and where they might likely be found at any given time, day or night. At the moment he is particularly concerned with the missing son of a black neighbour, whom he had once nurtured as a truly gifted baseball player. Nothing especially unusual in that, Clarence usually gets assigned to tasks that his white colleagues [who loathe him] refuse to do. But this is personal, a favour to a neighbour.

Ben Rubin is twenty five years old. He is from the large and largely down-trod Jewish community and is anxious to raise his profile within the Jewish 'Purple Gang', once powerful but now falling into decline and encroached upon by fast growing Sicilian Mafia gangs. He and his family are involved with the gang and when first the reader encounters him he is on his way to an ill fated robbery at a movie theatre.

Elizabeth Watson, aged thirty three, is a much put upon employee at a local radio station, technically responsible for the production of scripts.Not entirely from choice, she has turned her back on her previous privileged background and lifestyle in one of the richer parts of Detroit. Now she has a morphine habit from self medicating a serious injury to her hip caused by an automobile accident. She is also, and most significantly, actively involved in Communist activities. These range from assisting at one of the city's soup kitchens to monitoring the activities of the illegal and heavy handed and repressive tactics of the squad of thugs funded by the Henry Ford Automobile Group. At the moment a large protest march is being organised.

The last member of this ill matched quartet is a man called Roscoe Grissom. Originally from Tennessee, he has migrated to Detroit in search of work. He is unemployed, painfully bitter and extremely unhappily married with a wife and three daughters whom he loathes in a run down house in one of the poorer parts of town..The emotion is mutual. Roscoe is, in short, a loser with a low intelligence and with no apparent prospects. He is profoundly racist and drawn to extremist right wing views. It is perhaps inevitable that he becomes attracted to and recruited by an extremist right wing organisation called 'The Black legion'. It is an Organisation that he feels profoundly attached to; it has given him a reason for living. Apart from humble infantry such as himself and large numbers of serving police officers, the Legion also numbers of extremely high ranking Government officials, influential representatives from the Media, the Police and Industry. Very soon, through a whole series of events, he is selected for the task of assassinating the Mayor of Detroit himself, who has long been an inconvenient thorn in the flesh of the Black Legion and other interested parties.

When the reader of 'Savage City' has read this far [and it does not take long to reach this point], he or she becomes quite correctly aware that this is a complete stew of a situation, a powder keg waiting to explode in violence. By which time, the reader has become utterly engrossed in the action and the sheer expertise [for there is no other word for it] with which Donald Levin describes the scenes, builds up the action and illuminates his four characters with a truly enviable skill against this background of tension brought about by poverty, gang activities in all its manifestations, corruption and extremist politics. By this point the reader is undeniably hooked as individuals and events occur and combine. It must be said at this point that Levin paints an exquisite portrait of this freezing and miserable city of Detroit with uncanny 'A to Z' precision. He knows the place like the veritable back of his hand. All this is delivered in taut, laconic present tense prose and with pure 'Chandleresque' moments of dialogue and description. At one point in his very busy working day and in pursuit of one of his many 'leads', Clarence Brown, for example, is directed to a particular apartment in, naturally, a seedy part of town:

''In front of a fireplace are three white men. For a moment he wonders if they are part of the Purple Gang. The one in the middle holds a tommy gun; the others stand with their hands in their overcoat pockets; like gangsters. All are in fedoras. They look like they were sent over by Central Casting......'' Just a brief moment later in the description of the scene comes an immortal line beloved by all 'Godfather' buffs everywhere....''Black Bill Tocco says Hello.''

But, and the point must be stressed, this is no mere detective story. The descriptions of both scenes and the harrowing profiles of individuals are exquisite, elevating this book to a level far higher than that. Here is Elizabeth Watson again. She has had a particularly difficult past few days for reasons that this reviewer will not explain:

''She [Elizabeth] 'freshens up'. She leans on the sink, gazing into her own face in the mirror. Beyond the effect of the past two days, she sees the signs she is getting old. She is haggard, with dark circles under her eyes and a fine network of wrinkles angling from the corners of her mouth and eyes.''

As a very welcome addition, there is at the end of the book a list and brief description of all the characters in the book and also a set of extremely thoughtful and useful questions for further consideration, along with a biography. It is, perhaps, an occupational hazard for the reviewer of books to become cynical.But this particular reviewer has nothing but praise for the high quality of this work, praise for its extraordinary descriptive powers and its level of maintained excitement. 'Savage City' is a description coined by the weary Detective Clarence Brown. It is an apt description and an ideal title for the book as a whole. It has been a rare pleasure to have been held in thrall by its power.

I cannot be the only isolated reviewer who thinks that this book has all the makings of a first class motion picture.


“Savage City” by Donald Levin receives five stars from The Historical Fiction Company and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence for historical fiction.


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