Violet Hart lives on the fringes of Detroit. She’s prone to poking around Belle Isle Park in the pre-dawn with her camera, looking for gritty shots of gritty people doing gritty things. She lives in frugal fashion in a dreary little apartment in the blue-collar suburbs with a mirror over the bed. Violet wants to be an artist. She wants to be taken seriously. She knows it’s been too long since she felt “that chill” from any photographs she’s produced. She’s looking for truth.
Violet has a thing for Ted Ernst, who runs a gallery where some of her photographs are being exhibited. She’s also close to a funeral home director named Bill Fontanel. They are lovers. The third guy in Violet’s unusual orbit is a street artist named Derek Olson. He’s got peculiar ideas for artistic materials and looks for them while poking around the aforementioned Belle Isle.
With a traditional mystery set-up, Violet Hart would soon stumble across a murder victim during her semi-seedy wanderings and get entangled or lead-up the investigation. But Violet’s interests are art, not any pseudo role as amateur sleuth, even when Derek goes missing. Violet gets caught up a bit in the questioning around Derek’s demise and she does go in search of answers to a few questions, but she’s hardly driving the action. Violet’s main focus, her ticket to recognition, is a series of photographs she’s taking of Bill’s clients, young men who have lost their lives one way or another on the hard streets of Detroit. Most of the victims died as the result of violence, but not all.
Abbott’s writing is cool and straightforward and fully immerses us in Violet’s glum worldview. Comparisons to Patricia Highsmith and the darker stuff from Ruth Rendell, to me, are apt.
“I shot away, taking more picture of Ramir. Being a drug addict had taken a lot out of the guy, and I wanted to put some of it back for this final picture. He was handsome beneath the ravages of too little food, too many nights in the rough, and too many drugs. The bone structure was still there. I wasn’t doing an expose of heroin-cool cadavers. I’d save it for another time. An audience would notice the beauty in these men; cry out at their untimely deaths.”
For a photographer looking to make money from art rather than shooting dog shows and retirement parties, the funeral parlor’s clients light up Violet’s artistic soul and the questions she sets out to answer rely on her observational skills.
So Shot in Detroit is a quasi-mystery (it’s one of five finalists for an Edgar Award this year as Best Paperback Original) stirred gently together with a terrific character study and a dollop of psychological suspense. The novel offers a compelling portrait of Detroit’s recent blight and urban struggles, both the real property and the very real people. Violet is cool and jaded right down to the end, which delivers a nifty jolt. If you like your protagonists warm and cuddly, seek elsewhere. If you like a slice of gritty urban writing, check this out. Like the photographs Violet takes of the dead, Abbott’s tale is imbued with a genuine dignity.