Recently released, Savage City is a historical novel about Detroit during the Great Depression.
The era of 1930s Detroit was a period of extreme upheaval. The Great Depression, the worst economic disaster in American history, reigned for the entire decade. Heavily dependent upon automobile manufacturing, Detroit felt the ravages of the Depression more deeply than any other major city.
Severe economic distress, however, was just one of many serious issues facing Detroiters: there were also dangerous threats from crime and racketeering; civic corruption; white supremacy movements; rampant antisemitism and racial prejudice; and pitched battles between corporate powers and labor organizations. As the title of Donald Levin’s new novel suggests, Detroit was a Savage City.
Recently released, Savage City is a historical novel about Detroit during the Great Depression. Best known for his seven Martin Preuss mysteries, Levin takes a deep dive into the noir side of the city by focusing on the lives of four main characters during a critical week in 1932 and a pivotal event: the Ford Hunger March.
The novel begins with Clarence Brown, a migrant from the American South and one of only a few Black police officers in Detroit. He is also a detective, which makes him an even rarer commodity on the force. Brown is an honorable man who faces racial prejudice and slights every day of his working life, both from within the police department and without. In his part of the story, Brown faces many obstacles while trying to solve the lynching of an African American man that most of police force is willing to falsely declare a suicide.
Prohibition is still in effect and the distribution of illegal booze is a profitable enterprise in 1932. Although its power was on the wane, the most famous set of Detroit racketeers was the Purple Gang. Its founders and leaders were young Jewish men. Another of Levin’s characters, Ben Rubin, is a petty thief who dreams of joining the gang, but instead, becomes a target of the “Purples.” Rubin is not a bad guy, but he sees crime as a career path out of poverty until he meets Elizabeth Waters.
The scale of poverty in the United States during the Depression was unprecedented and the federal government did not seem to have any solutions to the problem. To many, it also seemed uncaring. As a result, many citizens began to consider alternative political ideologies such as communism, socialism and other “isms.” Elizabeth Waters is just such a person. Renouncing the security of her Grosse Pointe upbringing, Waters supports the communist-initiated Unemployment Councils. She’s a free spirit, an idealist, but after participating in the Hunger March, Waters finds herself jailed and abused by cops. Ben Rubin is also a victim of the Hunger March, and a bond develops between them.
The Ford Hunger March was an actual event that occurred on March 7, 1932. In protest over the lack of jobs, unemployed workers marched from the western Detroit border to Ford Motor Company’s giant River Rouge Industrial complex in Dearborn. There, they were met by police, Ford Service Department thugs led by Ford’s famous thug-in-chief, Harry Bennett, and by bullets. At the end of the clash, four marchers were dead (one died a few days later) and dozens were beaten and injured. Levin uses the Hunger March as a backdrop.
Finally, there is Roscoe Grissom. Grissom doesn’t have a job and he is disgruntled, mad at the world. He also sees himself as a victim of a changing society that includes African Americans, Catholics, Jews and communists, along with a grudge against a wide range of recent immigrants. Grissom is a perfect recruit for the notorious KKK-like organization in Detroit: the Black Legion. For the decade or so that the Black Legion existed, it had members in auto factories, Metro Detroit police forces, local governments and other entities.
Following his four main characters, Levin weaves an interesting, often hard, and, at times, lurid story as his protagonists navigate police corruption, antisemitism, the Hunger March and Black Legion terror, all leading to an assassination attempt on the mayor of Detroit. Along the way, his narrative includes brief appearances by many real-life characters such as famed Jewish labor lawyer Maurice Sugar and Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy, to name just two. Although there are several instances where the insertion of real-life characters seems a bit gratuitous, such as a clandestine Black Legion leadership meeting with Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, Harry Bennett and recalled Detroit Mayor Charles Bowles (who was indeed supported by the KKK), overall, the historical figures are appropriately entered into the narrative at key points.
This is a fascinating portrait of Detroit in 1932, a most tumultuous period of the city’s history. It is also a good read. The pacing of the prose is swift. His main composite characters are solid representations of certain types of people that populated the city, and their actions are plausible and true-to-life. Three of them try to do the right thing and readers will have empathy for them. Levin’s command of details about the city is also impressive.
Levin’s historical portrait of the era is not pretty; but although dark, it rings true. There is redemption for some characters, while others contribute to terrible developments that still haunt us. In this sense, there is an underlying lesson regarding how we got to today’s era of rising antisemitism and far-right white supremist organizations. As Savage City illustrates, the battle against these rotten elements is nothing new.
Meet Don Levin
An award-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of seven Martin Preuss mysteries, as well as the novel The House of Grins and two books of poetry. He has worked as a warehouseman, theater manager, advertising copywriter, scriptwriter, video producer and political speechwriter. He is now the retired dean of the faculty and professor of English at the former Marygrove College in Detroit.
Why did you decide to write this historically based fiction?
I had published seven Martin Preuss mysteries in a row, and I felt the need to step back from writing contemporary mysteries to work on a broader canvas. My last novel, In the House of Night, saw my main character, private investigator Martin Preuss, taking on far-right, white supremacist terrorism. That book came about because of the revulsion I felt at the 2017 Nazi rally in Charlottesville. My research showed me that white terrorism in Michigan has a long and unfortunate history.
How did you prepare to write this volume?
I did a lot of research, consulting books, articles, pamphlets, videos of participants in the Hunger March, old newspaper clippings, maps and photographs, as well as looking to historians of the city. I did intensive research in the language and culture of the 1930s. I wanted to get every detail as right as possible, so researching this book was a much more granular process than researching my Preuss mysteries. The more I thought about it, the more 1932 called to me as the time to set the story, in a city beset by the chaos of the Depression. The March 7 Ford Hunger Strike seemed like it brought many of the themes from the era together and would, above all, help me tell a good story.
Are there historical characters that inspired your characters?
I had planned for several real-life people of the period to have cameo roles — Maurice Sugar, Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin, Mayor Frank Murphy, to name just a few — so fictionalized versions of them make appearances. I developed four main characters that would represent the different worlds the book would portray, with a large cast of supporting roles. The only one of those main characters who was based on a real person is Detective Clarence Brown of the Detroit Police Department, who is based on an actual Black detective of the time; but, of course, I fictionalized him and his plot for the purposes of my story.
You write about a lot of dark times in Detroit history. Are there lessons for readers within your work?
I hope so. For readers who take a look around at today’s situation and wonder how we got here, the book’s partial answer is, we’ve always been here. The Detroit of 1932, rife with hatred, racism antisemitism, anti-labor sentiments, xenophobia, the unbearable struggle of poverty and inequality, and government corruption, is sadly similar to the state of America in 2022. At the same time, considerable hope runs through the book. Each of the four main characters wrestles with the question — how can I live in such a world? And each comes to his and her own accommodation. I hope readers will be inspired by what my characters discover.
How did your personal background impact your book?
I am Jewish, and it very much informed the work. One of the main characters is Jewish and struggles with the antisemitic climate of the time, just as I’m struggling with the resurgence of antisemitism that we see daily. One of the other main characters is a member of the Black Legion, an explicitly antisemitic, racist organization. I hope the parallels between the book and today’s rise in white supremacist terrorism are both instructive and chilling.