What do you do when you get blocked creatively? For Violet Hart, she takes pictures of dead people.
The main character in Patricia Abbott’s sophomore novel, SHOT IN DETROIT, Violet is a thirty-nine-year-old woman whose life seems to have meandered off course. At the start of the book, Violet is seeking “the boost that discovering I could still produce a first-rate photo would give me.” The place where she goes to find this boost is pre-dawn Belle Isle, a location in Detroit threatening to suburbanites for it’s a distant memory of the good years. Two police officers intercept her, questioning her motives and what a nice white woman is doing at a park where vagrants frequent, vagrants the cops are ignoring to hassle Violet. Her answers verge on the babbling as she tries to convince them not only that her art—photography—has merit, but the subjects she shoots—urban settings, including said vagrants—are interesting. “So, it’s art to you, huh?” the redheaded cop interrupted. “The people you snap don’t’ matter more than apples on a cutting board.”
It is a special book that demands a re-reading of the first chapter when you finish the last. You see, Abbott nails her subject, her character and motivations, and the atmosphere right out of the gate. The farther into the book I got, the more the echoes of the first chapter kept coming back to me. By the time I got to the last page, I was dying to return to the first chapter. Sure enough that first chapter is like a short story in itself. It’s all in there. Not surprising since Abbott has written over 100 short stories and won a Derringer Award.
But I digress. SHOT IN DETROIT focuses on a triumvirate of characters. Violet is at the center, the nucleus around which the story turns. Bill Fontenel is her lover. He is a handsome black man, a mortician by trade, who takes wonderful care of his “clients.” In fact, his grace with the dead is his calling card, and it is a simple request by him that sets the story in motion. He asks Violet to take a picture of a dead man because Bill’s regular photographer cannot. This action piques Violet’s artistic eye and she stumbles into the subject of her next project: photographing dead black men.
Ted Ernst owns an art gallery where a dozen of Violet’s photos hang. He’s the upscale bourgeois type that comes across as too cultured for his own good. He’s indifferent to Violet’s existing work—in fact, he returns them soon after the book starts—but is curious about the black corpse project. His only sticking point as the story progresses is to get Bill to sign a contract to protect the gallery when the project goes on display.
But it is Violet’s eyes through which we experience everything. Her backstory is parceled out in bits and pieces, a marvelous technique Abbott deploys. Slowly, over time, Violet’s character, who she is and how she came to be this way, is revealed. Violet’s mother is a waitress, her father, an itinerate jazz musician who bailed on the family soon after Violet was born. She had a sister, but she’s been dead for years. This building of Violet’s biography is done is such a way as to be greater than the sum of her parts. Inextricably the reader is drawn into Violet’s mind, deeper into the story, and deeper into her desire to snap more photos and complete her project.
Alas, her project demands the deaths of more black men. Will she have enough—she’s aiming for ten to twelve with a short deadline? This being Detroit, the reader is inclined to think so. So, too, is Violet. Surprisingly, the bodies aren’t as plentiful, and Violet verges on desperation. Ted is breathing down her neck for the contract to be signed and the project to be fulfilled. Bill grows increasingly reluctant to participate in Violet’s morbid fascination with her subjects. “Don’t call the dead what killed them,” Bill reverently intones in one of the best takeaways of the entire book. But Violet’s tone has already shifted from innocent curiosity to actively mercenary. To one of her subjects, she says, “Buck up, Ramir. I’ll make you a star. And maybe you’ll make me one.”
Abbott’s pacing is gentle and the suspense is a slow burn. The artist in Violet gradually takes over until she’s worried more about her vision rather than her subjects: dead men. Abbott paints Detroit not as the sprawling city most folks like me might think it is but as a small, almost claustrophobic town. Like an expert craftsman, Abbott constructs her novel in such a way that all the pieces fit into place perfectly. The house she has built stands solidly, not a word out of place. She’s a magician. Her sleight of hand technique at showing you what she wants you to see is so good that certain events—especially the ending—I never saw coming.
SHOT IN DETROIT is an excellent book and a nice change of pace from what some readers—me included—think of when the terms “crime fiction” or “suspense fiction” are bandied about. It’s not all cops and robbers, gangs and violence. Sometimes the best crime fiction can surprise you in ways you didn’t expect, giving you insight not only into the mind of a character but in yourself as well.
Do yourself a favor and add this book to your summer reading list. Pick your format. You're welcome.