Detroit Crime – Old Style by D.E. Johnson

Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing Motor City Shakedown, author D.E. Johnson’s sequel to his debut novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme. Today, I am pleased to turn the blog over to Dan to talk a little crime… old style.

D.E. JohnsonCarte blanche to write anything I want? Okay, how about Detroit crime—old style?

My new book, Motor City Shakedown, is set in Detroit’s first mob war. My protagonist, Will Anderson, is thrown into the middle of this bloody fight between the Adamo and Gianolla gangs. I’ve stayed close to the historical record, with the exception of throwing my fictional characters into the mix (and adding a bit of dramatic effect).

Here’s what really happened:

In the early 20th Century, the mob was really just a bunch of street gangs. The Sicilians were the most prominent, and were what was known at the time as “Black Hand” gangs. The Black Hand would walk into a business, usually one run by a fellow Sicilian, and tell them that, for a small weekly fee, they would protect the business and its employees from the bad elements in the neighborhood—namely, themselves. If the business owner refused, his place might burn down, his employees might get beaten, or worse.

Vito Adamo was the cream that first rose to the top of the Detroit rackets. He was a Sicilian immigrant who came to the Detroit area sometime around the turn of the century. By 1910 he was known as the “White Hand.” Adamo protected businesses from the Black Hand—for a fee. Oh, and it was his own Black Hand gang he was protecting the businesses from. He got it coming and going.

He was big in the importation of illegal immigrants and untaxed liquor across the Detroit River from Canada, as well as most other sorts of crime you’d expect from a street gang. It was beer, though, that got him into the first mob war in Detroit history.

The Gianolla brothers owned a grocery store across the street from Adamo’s store (and it kills me to think that these ruthless criminals were grocers. I suppose I can reconcile my conflict with a “Bill the Butcher” comparison from Gangs of New York.) The Gianollas saw Adamo getting rich from crime. They’d been doing pretty well themselves, but the only way to expand their business was to take over Adamo territory.

So they lowered their beer prices and took a significant part of the Adamos beer trade. Vito was none too happy about this, and not only matched their prices, he threw in ice (a necessity in the pre-refrigeration days). The Gianollas responded by beating up some of Adamo’s men, and this soon escalated into a shotgun war on the streets of Detroit’s Little Italy.

The city had never seen anything like this. The newspapers went crazy. The war was front-page news nearly every day for the better part of a year, until it was ended with the deaths of the leaders of one of the gangs. (I’m not telling which, since it’s a major part of the climax of Motor City Shakedown. It’s easy enough to Google if you can’t wait or—horrors—aren’t going to read the book. But read the book. Please. The New York Times liked it. That means something, right?)

D.E. (Dan) Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood but had to hit his midlife crisis to get serious about it. His first novel, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. The Detroit Electric Scheme has garnered excellent reviews (including being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the year) and also won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award. Dan is married, has three daughters, and lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan. To learn more about Dan, visit his website.


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  • Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours

    November 10, 2011 - 6:14 PM

    I love getting to know a bit of the story-behind-the-story with any historically based book so I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for featuring Mr. Johnson during the tour!

  • Sabrina Ogden

    November 8, 2011 - 9:25 AM

    The New York Times might like it, but Elizabeth White is talking about it… that means more, in my humble opinion. This sounds like an incredible read, and I’ll definitely add this to my TBR pile. Great post, Dan! Looking forward to the review.