Monday, July 16, 2007

A Sense of Place: Michigan Summer Reading

Guest post by Jennifer L. Walters, longtime part-time Michigan resident, and a dean at Smith College.

It’s mid-summer and time to put down whatever you’ve been reading to improve yourself and take a vacation. If you think all politics is local and aim to buy local and eat local, why not read local, too? There’s some great “Mich-lit” that will take you from Gogebic to Gratiot, from Lake Superior to River Rouge.

For fans of gritty urban mysteries, there’s nothing better than Elmore Leonard’s novels. Like David Mamet, Leonard advances the action through terse, economical “hard-boiled” dialogue. He’s written over 30 novels ranging from westerns to mysteries, and makes a little go a long way. Up in Honey’s Room, Out of Sight, Pagan Babies, Freaky Deaky, and Mr. Paradise will satisfy your taste for a walk on Detroit’s wild side.

Another Detroit dick, Amos Walker, from author Loren D. Estelman is also beach-worthy. describes Walker as “unapologetically old-fashioned, [and] defiantly politically-incorrect.” Nicotine Kiss, Retro and Poison Blonde are only three titles in that series of nineteen. Jon A. Jackson's books featuring Detroit homicide detective "Fang" Mulheisen are also a good bet.

Heading head west of Detroit you’ll find Lev Raphael’s mysteries. Raphael sheds a little light on academe’s underbelly with his crime-fighting untenured literature professor Nick Hoffman. Raphael’s first book in the Hoffman series was The Edith Wharton Murders. It now includes Tropic of Murder, Burning Down the House, Death of a Constant Lover, and Little Miss Evil.

If the U.P. is your preferred locale and you like sexy middle-aged former athletes with a history of failure and some old Detroit connections, you’ve got your choice of two PIs. Grady Service, Joseph Heywood’s DNR officer in the “Woods Cop” mystery series is a gritty fly-fishing former hockey player with a love of the deep woods. Service is an charming gumshoe in waders who’s happier tracking bear than bad guys. Heywood’s prose evokes the natural beauty of upper Michigan and its rich Native history and ethnic culture. Try Chasing a Blonde Moon and Blue Wolf in Green Fire.

The other U.P. detective is Alex McKnight – a former minor league catcher, former Detroit cop, and a PI who’d rather be doing something else, but doesn’t know what. His territory is the Soo. Steve Hamilton’s successful series is a quicker read than Heywood’s novels, with a focus more on plot than place, but you still get a feel for the north. His 1998 debut, A Cold Day in Paradise, won an Edgar and a Shamus award making Hamilton the first to win both for a first novel.

If mystery isn’t your genre, try Charles Baxter’s novels. Feast of Love, (a finalist for a National Book Award in 2000) is a quiet sweet novel about love set in contemporary Ann Arbor. To most people Michigan Stadium is Ann Arbor, but Baxter’s affection for the neighborhoods and its quirky inhabitants shines. His next novel, Saul and Patsy, tells a story of a young east coast couple who finds themselves in a small Michigan community named “Five Oaks.” Baxter is a mid-western writer – quiet, economical, and tender toward his characters.

And if you’re looking for some new Detroit fiction, Cass Tech and Wayne State graduate Cheryl Robinson’s R&R novels (romance and relationships) are garnering some attention. Try If it Ain’t One Thing, It’s Like That, and Sweet Georgia Brown.

This summer, while you’re looking for something to read on the back porch or at the beach, reach for some “Mich-lit” and rediscover something more to love about your state.