Loren D. Estleman Essay - Critical Essays


Loren D. Estleman’s Amos Walker is a fish out of water, someone who might have been much more comfortable practicing his trade in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when morality was less ambiguous, than in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He smokes, drinks, winds down by listening to jazz singer Anita O’Day, and watches George Sanders as the Falcon on television. Walker is bemused when he encounters a twenty-five-year-old receptionist who does not recognize the name Al Capone.

The city where Walker lives is central to his life; Estleman has said that the detective would be only half a character without Detroit. The Walker series gives a complex view of Detroit and its suburbs, presenting drug dealers, prostitutes, pornographers, automotive executives, television personalities, bounty hunters, killers of police officers, reporters, politicians, and jazz singers.

Although racial tensions are important in Estleman’s fiction, the author is equally concerned with the class differences between the wealthy who have abandoned the city and those left behind who simply want to live what passes for normal lives. Anyone who exploits these people, from dirty police officers to corrupt politicians, is a target of the writer’s ire. Though Estleman uses crime as a metaphor for the ills of society, he keeps sociology simmering in the background, never letting it overshadow his plots and characters.

Although the roughhewn Walker could easily be on the other side of the law, hit man Peter Macklin is successful at his work because he seems so ordinary. Macklin finds himself encountering terrorists in Kill Zone (1984), guards a television evangelist in Any Man’s Death (1986), and becomes the target of another killer in Roses Are Dead (1986).

Originally planned as a trilogy, the Detroit series looks at the city’s flamboyant history during the early twentieth century in Thunder City (1999), the 1920’s and 1930’s in Whiskey River (1990), the 1940’s in Jitterbug (1998), the 1950’s in Edsel (1995), the 1960’s in Motown (1991), the 1970’s in Stress (1996), and the 1990’s in King of the Corner (1993). The topics range from labor unions to organized crime to racism in the police department to the origins of the automobile industry, with a few characters appearing in more than one novel. Estleman uses the city to embody the promise of the American Dream and those who find the quest unattainable.

Estleman’s fiction is crammed with popular-culture references, particularly to films. Everyone from Willie Best, the black character actor of the 1930’s and 1940’s, to Fred Astaire is mentioned. A house in Birmingham, Michigan, is said to resemble the Mount Rushmore residence of James Mason in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), a hint that danger lurks there. The framed, original Casablanca (1942) poster in Walker’s office lets readers know he is a tough guy with a romantic, even sentimental streak.

King of the Corner features a former relief pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, and Estleman’s books frequently have references to the baseball team representing the best of the city’s achievements. Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, who played for the Tigers from 1953 to 1974, is an important touchstone for Estleman.


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