Loren D. Estleman’s Desperate Detroit and Stories of Other Dire Places is a collection of 18 signature crime/suspense stories previously published in popular periodicals and anthologies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ghost Towns, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine dating from 1977 to 2015. Although Detroit is singled out by name in the book’s title, perhaps to link it more directly to Estleman’s excellent noir collection Detroit Is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen, the majority of the stories are set in the other “dire places.” This is not quite Detroit redux.
While the stories vary in subject matter and setting, the one common thread running through most all of them is the ironic twist ending. Like the best suspense writers, Estleman knows how to lead the reader down the garden path. Like a con man running a three card monte scam, he makes sure that the ace is never where you think it’s going to be. Indeed the one thing certain: it will never be where you think it is. And don’t expect any spoilers here; read the book and expect twist after twist, O Henry-like surprise ending after O Henry-like surprise ending.
The stories feature a variety of interesting, well-developed characters: an overweight lawyer interrupted as he bites into his third ham sandwich, a Vietnamese masseuse who knows a good thing when she sees it, a washed up boxer working security, and an unusual contract killer or two. Often they speak in their own voices. They, much in the tradition of the dramatic monologue, are not always aware of the real situation they are narrating, so that they are as often as surprised by what happens as the reader. And even when they are aware, they don’t always understand the effects of what they are saying.
There are stories of revenge, like the family feud described in “Bad Blood.” There are stories of betrayal, like “The Black Spot.” There are stories told in the voice of well-known figures, fictional “Sincerely, Mr. Hyde” and real “You Owe Me.” There are stories in which the narrator discovers he is not as smart as he thinks he is, like “How’s My Driving?” and “Evil Grows.” There are stories like, “The Bog,” where he outsmarts himself. There are stories, “Diminished Capacities,” where people being taken advantage of manage to turn the tables.
And luckily with 18 stories, if one is not particularly appealing, there are plenty more to which one can turn.