A gripping tale of race, class and justice
Motor City Burning
By Bill Morris
Pegasus Books. 336 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Martha Woodall
Motor City Burning, the latest novel by Bill Morris, is set in Detroit in 1968. It's been nearly a year since the city was ravaged by a fiery, race-fueled riot that claimed the lives of 43 people and left some neighborhoods resembling post-bombing Dresden. The flames have been extinguished, but a few persistent hot spots have yet to be tamped down. Morris' expertly crafted narrative centers on one of them: the unsolved murder of riot victim 43.
Helen Hull had run the Greenleaf Market with her husband for years. When the violence grew too close, she had moved from the couple's apartment above the neighborhood store to a nearby motel while her husband stayed behind to guard the market. Roused by noises, including the rumbling of a National Guard tank in the darkened street, Helen looked out from an illuminated, fourth-floor window and was felled by a single .30-caliber bullet. Was she hit by a sniper, or an errant shot from a National Guardsman?
Morris has poised two men on opposite sides of the puzzle: Willie Bledsoe, a young African American who left the Tuskegee Institute to become an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Frank Doyle, a white homicide detective who grew up in Detroit.
Both have a special interest in the Hull murder.
In the spring of 1967, Bledsoe, who had grown disillusioned with the civil rights movement, had driven his '54 Buick from Alabama to Detroit with his Vietnam-veteran brother, and with his brother's cache of weapons stashed in the trunk. Doyle grew up near the Hulls' Greenleaf Market, visited the store daily as a kid, and accompanied the Hulls when they treated neighborhood children to an annual outing at Tiger Stadium.
Morris chronicles the experiences of the two main characters from the opening day of the Tigers' 1968 baseball season to the team's improbable World Series win. In alternating chapters of this skillfully paced narrative, he charts Bledsoe and Doyle's inexorable steps toward a confrontation.
But this novel is no mere police procedural. It's a gripping tale and a meditation on race, class, and justice set during the year the country was rocked by the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Morris contrasts the still-segregated world that Bledsoe inhabits as one of the African American busboys at the Oakland Hills Country Club with the suburban excesses of Chick Murphy, a wealthy white club member who runs a large Buick dealership.
Motor City Burning also vividly examines Detroit itself - its troubled history, its music, and its veneration of the automobile, which fueled the city's boom and lured workers to its factories.
Morris, a graceful, perceptive writer, grew up in Detroit and may be at his best when he describes the city's gritty charms, its sights and its smells. The old Tiger Stadium is "a great, sooty iceberg" and Ford's behemoth River Rouge complex is a "blasted world - rusty silos, mountain ranges of coal and slag, spurts of fire, conveyor belts and railroad tracks, all of it coated with ash and bisected by a river as green as a lizard."
With a title taken from a John Lee Hooker song, it's no surprise the novel is laced with snippets from the pop music world of 1968 and pulsates with the rhythms of the R&B and soul of Barry Gordy's Motown Records.
Motor City Burning is Morris' third novel, and it may be his best. If there's any justice, it should bring him the attention and the audience he deserves.