When the United States entered the Second World War, Detroit converted its automobile factories into an “arsenal of democracy”. Car manufacture was put on hold and instead, workers produced tanks, aircraft, and other machines which helped the Allies win the war. All sorts of people had to come together and collaborate in a spirit of patriotism. But racial tensions were high and eventually resulted in rioting.
And in Loren D. Estleman’s novel Jitterbug, a psychotic killer is taking the whole patriotism thing a bit too far. A maniac is on the loose, murdering people left and right. Specifically, he targets hoarders, convinced that every dead hoarder means a soldier’s life is saved on the war front. All those gas and food rations can go to the fine American troops instead of the greedy hands of citizens back home too old and/or infirm to fight. He even leaves a calling card, the message “Kilroy was here”, and it’s up to police lieutenant Maximilian Zagreb to hunt the killer down. But there’s no shortage of suspects in a metropolis like Detroit, and Zagreb is racing against time as Kilroy’s violence escalates…
Jitterbug is described as “a novel of Detroit”, and it is a terrific read, especially for its portrait of wartime Detroit. It is vividly written, and it truly brings history to life. While I was reading this book, there were stretches of time where I forgot I was reading a book, and was so totally immersed in the setting and atmosphere that it came as a bit of a jolt when I had to put the book down for one reason or another. Estleman does a particularly fine job of portraying the race relations in Detroit during the war, as an influx of black workers came into town, which was something of a Ku Klux Klan stronghold to begin with. It climaxes in a violent riot, which Estleman portrays unflinchingly. The confusion and hysteria of the moment are excellently portrayed, as is the terror. This is an outstanding piece of craftsmanship on all fronts.
Not only that, Estleman manages to take a tired feature of the mystery novel – the ramblings from the POV of a psychotic killer – and does something really interesting with it. The scenes where “Kilroy” muses about how he’s helping the war effort and how he’s a good, true American are chilling to the bone. They are effectively-written and well-spaced, so that you don’t overdose on the character’s ramblings.
This is a dark novel in many ways, and it shows the city’s ugly side: the organized crime, the corruption, the police using not-necessarily-legal methods in order to get results. A large chunk of this novel is also written from the POV of a black character, a worker in one of Detroit’s factories who is just trying to make an honest living… and whose brother becomes a suspect in the Kilroy murders. It all makes for tremendously vivid reading.
Jitterbug is a dark and gritty police procedural, and I really liked it. The solution to the Kilroy murders is a bit generic, with a murderer basically picked out at random, but it takes the cops hard work to find the killer and it was fascinating to see. Anyone with an interest in history will also be delighted by the vivid portrayal of wartime Detroit. Overall, the book makes for a terrific read and I can highly recommend it.