Lit List

The 10 Best Books About the Motor City

Detroit has been in the spotlight lately—and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Detroit has reached the highest highs and the lowest lows, but through it all, it's been a vibrant city full of character and life. Here the best books on the legendary American city.

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Detroit is, without question, one of the most tortured, resilient, and fascinating cities in America. Known for its cars and its music, it has also produced a significant body of literature—fiction, poetry, history, autobiography, reportage—that helps explain how the Motor City went from industrial dynamo to what it is today: a struggling, bankrupt, yet still hopeful survivor.

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroitby Elmore Leonard (1980)

Elmore Leonard wrote ad copy before turning to fiction—first Westerns and then the indelible novels that made him America’s greatest crime writer. One of his very best is City Primeval, which has all the Leonard trademarks: a weirdly endearing bad guy named Clement “the Oklahoma Wildman” Mansell, a cop named Raymond Cruz who’s determined to bring down this thrill killer, and a story that surfs along on a wave of crisp dialog and moral ambiguity. Leonard said he wrote the book’s climactic showdown (hinted at in the subtitle) as a Western parody. “Underneath,” he added, typically deadpan, “it’s just two little boys playing with guns.” Of course, as always with Leonard, it’s much more than that.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolisby Mark Binelli (2012)

The son of Italian immigrants, Mark Binelli grew up in metro Detroit during the city’s long nosedive. He moved away in 1993, at age 22, and then, in 2009, went back home on a magazine assignment to write about the battered auto industry and wound up staying in town, gathering material for Detroit City Is the Place to Be. The book is a clear-eyed look at the sources of his hometown’s woes, an assessment of its current state, and a look at possible futures. It dispenses with the misconceptions that salty-tongued Coleman Young, the first black mayor, singlehandedly brought the city to its knees, or that the recent influx of white creative types can singlehandedly get it back on its feet. Binelli is a hard-nosed reporter, but not a pessimist. What he witnessed, he writes, “couldn’t help but make you feel that Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.”

A Walk With Tom Jeffersonby Philip Levine (1988)

Born in Detroit in 1928, Philip Levine started out working in the inferno of the city’s factories and went on to become poet laureate of the United States. He is unrivalled at capturing the horror and the occasional beauty that coexisted inside Detroit’s factories—and what became of the city after those factories shut down. The title poem of A Walk With Tom Jefferson is a heart-breaking portrait of a city in ruins, a moonscape of abandoned factories, prairies, feral dogs. The Tom Jefferson of this poem is an old black man up from Alabama, living in an abandoned house, growing vegetables, and eking out a life. He spreads his arms at the devastation and says, “We all come for $5 a day and we got this!” Levine has said these poems are about how Detroiters always find a way to endure, “since that is the only choice we have.”

Where Did Our Love Go?by Nelson George (1985)

This book is less a biography of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy than a history of how Detroit spawned that fabulously successful—and fabulously tragic—hit-making machine. George, a respected critic and journalist, sets the company’s 1959 birth in the context of Detroit’s rich musical heritage: its thriving jazz and blues clubs, its churches, even its cadre of classically trained musicians—all of which would fuel Motown’s rise. This even-handed book makes it clear that Gordy was a musical and entrepreneurial genius who was undone by his paternalistic streak. David Ruffin, the disgruntled lead singer of The Temptations, complained that the company kept him in “economic peonage.” He was not alone in that grievance. As Robert Christgau states in the introduction, the book succeeds because George “keeps his eye on the money and his ear on the music and explains how they fit together.” Gordy’s decision to move Motown to Hollywood in 1971 was a knife to Detroit’s soul.

Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collectionby Loren D. Estleman (2010)

The fictional hard-boiled private eye might seem like a relic from an earlier era, but Amos Walker, the durable and lovable gumshoe created by Loren D. Estleman, remains fresh and relevant. A tough guy with a soft interior and a taste for cheap scotch, Walker has spent the past three and a half decades trying to clean up Detroit, a city he insists on loving even as it continues to break his heart. In the introduction to this delightful doorstop of a book, Estleman explains what inspired him to set Amos Walker loose on the raw streets of the Motor City: “Where others saw desolation and despair, I saw color. It’s the worm in the apple that makes the apple interesting.”

American Odysseyby Robert Conot (1974)

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This is, arguably, the best history of Detroit ever written. Conot had a gift for exploring large themes through the lives of ordinary people, and then placing those lives in the context of national and international events. Conot’s from-the-bottom-up approach to writing history allows him to describe the human toll of the forces that have bedeviled Detroiters for decades—ethnic and racial tension, layoffs and factory closings, bungled social welfare and “urban renewal” projects, political corruption and crime. It’s not always pretty, but it provides the small solace that Detroit’s current woes come from a tree that’s been producing poisoned fruit more than three centuries.

Dopefiend by Donald Goines (1971)

Donald Goines was born into Detroit’s black middle class in 1936, but after getting hooked on heroin while in the armed services in Korea, he came home and wound up becoming a pimp, a thief, and a junkie. While doing time at Jackson State Prison, Goines started writing fiction, and his first published novel, Dopefiend, appeared in 1971. Based on characters he knew from the street, it’s the graphic story of a black couple in inner-city Detroit sliding into the pit of addiction—a life that cannot end well. After this debut, Goines continued to write at a furious pace, producing a body of work that echoed Celine, Genet, and Burroughs. In Goines’s fiction—and in his life—no bad act went unpunished. He and his wife were found murdered in their apartment in 1974, each with multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest. The killings were never solved. If you want street, Goines is your man.

A Detroit Anthologyedited by Anna Clark (2014)

This new collection is a spicy stew of reportage, memoir, personal essays, poetry, photographs, and fictionalized observations from past and current Detroiters, ranging from unpublished to seasoned professional writers. They tell large stories through little moments and seemingly small epiphanies. What these writers share, despite their differences of age, race, gender, and temperament, is the understanding that one has to know Detroit’s history before even beginning to imagine how the city might move forward. Rather than trying to explain Detroit, editor Anna Clark says she set out to capture “the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters.” She has succeeded spectacularly.

Hard Stuffby Coleman Young and Lonnie Wheeler (1994)

This autobiography puts a human face on one of the most vilified, deified, profane, divisive, inspiring, and maddening figures in the history of Detroit politics. Coleman Young, a street hustler and autoworker turned union activist, became the city’s first black mayor in 1974 and ruled the city with an iron fist for the next 20 years. Young’s book paints a vivid portrait of his boyhood on the sizzling streets of Black Bottom, the lively all-black East Side neighborhood that was eventually bulldozed to make way for a freeway and assorted “urban renewal” projects—an insult that still rankles black Detroiters of a certain age. Young’s journey from those streets to the mayor’s mansion makes for fascinating reading, largely because the man who liked to be known as “Mayor Motherfucker” was never at a loss for words. As he said of his election in 1973, “I was taking over the administration of Detroit because white people didn’t want the damn thing anymore.”

The Algiers Motel Incidentby John Hersey (1968)

This is an uneven but devastating account of one of the most horrific incidents of the bloody 1967 riot: the night Detroit police and National Guardsmen beat and then murdered three unarmed black civilians at the titular motel on Woodward Avenue. The book suffers from being rushed to publication even before the lone accused policeman went on trial, and the narrative is at times choppy and confusing. But it tells a story that is indispensible to anyone trying to understand the madness that swept Detroit in July of 1967. In his review of the book, American Odyssey author Robert Conot wrote, “If the full story of the Algiers Motel is ever brought to light, it may be one of even greater shame and terror than Mr. Hersey conceives.” Detroit cop Ronald August, the only person brought to trial in the case, was acquitted of murder by an all-white jury.

And don’t miss: Devil’s Night by Ze’ev Chafets (1990). The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue (1996). Them by Joyce Carol Oates (1969). On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors by John DeLorean (1975). Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study In Urban Revolution by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin (1975). The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century by Steven Watts (2005). Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle (2012).