I rarely abandon a novel once I've started it. There have been some—Moby Dick and Gravity's Rainbow come to mind—I've needed several false starts before getting up enough traction or momentum to finally read to the end. Most recently I gave up on a debut novel by a brilliant writer I won't name whose narrator is a serial killer sexually aroused by his murders. Creeped me out, and I doubt I will ever come back to it. Squeamish, some might say, but I prefer “humanely sensitive.” I can't help identifying with compelling characters in novels, and there are some I just cannot abide.
Violet Hart, the narrator in Patricia Abbott's new novel, Shot in Detroit,seemed at first to be one of these. Hart is an artist obsessed with taking photographs of dead young black men in their coffins. Knowing this I might never have started the book had the author been someone other than Abbott. Even then I hesitated a tad, even still savoring her debut novel, Concrete Angel, which has lit up the crime-fiction community to rave reviews and awards. I've lived long enough to have come to terms with death—of family and friends, natural and violent--and have reached an albeit edgy peace with the inevitability of my own demise, not unreasonably distant down that road we're told we all eventually must walk alone. At the same time morbidity continues to put me off. Grateful Dead to me is the name of a band. It might mean more to some, but not me--I hear the rippling intro to Truckin'. I feel obliged to focus my attention on the potential for growth the statistically brief time left to me has in store. Better busy being born than busy dying, as Bob Dylan sagely advised.
So wouldn't you know, several chapters in, Shot in Detroit started giving me the same creepy feeling I got from the other novel, the one with the sexual fetish serial killer narrator I abandoned. And I wasn't much liking Violet Hart, who seemed a calloused young woman who put her art above all else. She has a mirror on the ceiling above her bed for added dimension to her trysts, which to her seem to have little more significance than carnal quality. But more than not liking her, I wasn't liking what she was doing, taking photos of dead bodies in coffins. It didn't help that she was taking great pains, artistic pains, to preserve these young men in images that greatly interested the owner of a gallery who wanted to feature them in a showing. I found this disturbing, and so did Hart's boyfriend, the mortician who had unintentionally sparked her obsession and, although allowing her to shoot the photos at his funeral home, was growing uneasy about her project.
Something kept me on track, though. Abbott's skill with characters, bringing them alive with yearnings and fears, weaknesses, and strengths, has a way of winning you over, infiltrating your defenses. You start feeling friendly, no matter what they're up to. You sort of want to have their back, help them when they're in a jam. It was Father's Day when I read Shot in Detroit. My own daughter is in Los Angeles, a struggling actress. I'm in Virginia. I worry about her out there. As I read Violet Hart's unsettling narrative I began to wonder why Sarah hadn't called me yet. My paternal instincts were kicking in. They bled unto the pages I was reading.
Soon I was Violet's dad. Her own father had abandoned the family shortly after she was born. Her story was drawing me in as his surrogate. “Stop with this thing about dead bodies,” I more than once almost hollered. “Keep your mouth shut,” I snapped silently while police detectives interrogated her as a suspect in the violent deaths of a couple of young men she knew. I offered unspoken sympathy and gentle advice during her interior monologues when she worried about her decisions and the course her life was taking. “No!!” I'm afraid I might have shouted out loud when it seemed the unthinkable had just happened.
So did I finish Shot in Detroit? Would I have written this review if I hadn't? (I don't review books I've abandoned, even to pan what I've read of them.) Did I like Shot in Detroit? Yes. Speak up, I can't hear you. YES, DAMMIT, I LOVED IT!! Thanks. Oh, did my daughter call? C'mon, you want me to spoil the ending?
Click on any of the links below to buy Shot in Detroit: