Southwest Michigan author D.E. Johnson just released his third novel with St. Martin’s Publishing. It’s a follow up to The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown. Detroit Breakdown follows protagonists Will Anderson and his girlfriend Elizabeth Hume into a mental institution of one hundred years ago.
One of his regular places to write is at a local coffee shop. Johnson says sometimes writing in a public place can be helpful.
“I don’t really find myself losing concentration much writing in a coffee shop,” he says, “although if I can be completely by myself, that’s my preference. This is a good place, restaurants too, to overhear conversations. I have become an eavesdropper since I’ve been writing dialogue. It really does help, listening to the cadence of conversations, the things that are said and the things that are not said but are implied, partial sentences, if someone halts in a sentence where they do it. So really trying to break down the structure of the way people talk.”
Detroit Breakdown is set in 1912 at Eloise Hospital, Detroit’s infamous insane asylum. Johnson says with each of his books he has used a different backdrop for the story. With the first book it was the rise and fall of the electric car, the second book was about the city’s first mob war and the story of organized crime in Detroit. With this one it is mental health issues and treatments of the early 20th century.
“It was an easy choice because Eloise is such a powerful image in the Detroit area. It was the only county-owned asylum in the state…everything else was run by the state. And they did things the way they wanted to do them, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. They were on the forefront of things like radium treatment for tuberculosis, that’s led to radiation for cancer treatments. But, they also tried it on people who didn’t need it. They were one of the big ones in electroshock and lobotomies and all those things that came later. Really, this time, the 1910’s were kind of an interim period between very barbaric behavior toward the mentally ill and the scientific approach where they would shock or lop off pieces of the brain until the patients started acting normally, which didn’t work out so well either.”
Readers of Johnson’s first two mysteries know that characters Will and Elizabeth have a rocky romantic past and have been through many adventures together. As Detroit Breakdown opens, they are at peace and happy, but it isn’t long before trouble arises and Elizabeth receives a phone call from Eloise Hospital.
“The phone call says that her cousin has been accused of murdering another patient, so Will and Elizabeth go there to try and find out what happened and they just get stonewalled by the administration, so they decide they need to investigate because it doesn’t look like her cousin will ever be able to get out of this. Will commits himself as an amnesia patient and Elizabeth signs on as a volunteer. And they experience a lot of the difficulties that patients faced in the mental institutions of the day. It was really sort of the beginning though of social consciousness regarding people who were mentally ill.”
Johnson says Detroit Breakdown was inspired by journalist Nellie Bly’s 1887 book on mental health institutions. For her book Ten Days in a Madhouse, Bly had herself committed to an insane asylum.
“In some ways it’s a very poignant story,” Johnson says. “In some ways it’s a very funny story. I really paid a homage to that book, with the way Will gets into the asylum because I thought it was so clever and I really wanted to sort of ring back to Nellie Bly, because I think she was such a brave and brilliant person.”
D.E. Johnson is the author of the new mystery Detroit Breakdown. He’ll be at Barnes and Noble in Portage Saturday at 2 p.m. for a book reading and signing event.