I could tell you the reason I haven’t posted my thoughts about Patricia Abbott’s SHOT IN DETROIT is that I’ve been really busy. But that would be a lie. Not the first part…I have been stupidly busy…but that’s not the reason I didn’t want to say anything about this book. I have been reluctant to reveal what this particular reading experience taught me about myself. Being confronted with evidence that you are not the person you’ve convinced yourself you are is unpleasantly awkward.
I have often remarked that I do not need to like a book’s main character to like the book itself. Turns out that is not as accurate a statement as I want it to be. And then there’s learning I really don’t like artists much. Ouch.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Violet Hart is an artistic photographer. A not very successful one. When we meet her she’s staring at 40 and if not outright desperate then very, very keen to make a mark in her chosen field and realises the opportunity might be slipping away. Her lover, Bill, is a funeral director. He takes great pride in taking care of his clients, often dressing them in stylish clothes he has sourced himself. One day Bill asks Violet to take a photo of one of his clients, after the young man has been dressed and made up but before his burial. The man’s family is overseas and won’t be able to attend the funeral so Violet’s photo is all they’ll have. The act of taking the photo – getting it right – spurs Violet’s creativity. Could she put together a collection of photographs of the dead?
If you find that premise creepy you’re not alone. I did. Still do if truth be told though I think Violet – and Abbott – made a decent case for the idea having merit by the end of the book. But I know in my heart I wouldn’t go to see such an exhibition were one to open nearby. A lot of the people in the story were troubled by it too. Including Bill who Violet cajoles into asking the families of most of his clients for permission to photograph and he does though with increasing reluctance. But the further she gets into the project the more demanding Violet becomes. Because this could be the something special she’s been looking for. Because most of Bill’s clients are young black men. Bill himself is black and he says black people want to use ‘one of their own’ when it comes to funerals. Violet’s photographs then are saying something about the fact that young black men – at least in Detroit – have a habit of dying.
While all this is going on Violet also becomes tangentially involved in a criminal investigation. It starts when she is wandering her city looking for interesting ways to photograph the city. On Bell Isle – an island park in the Detroit River – she befriends a street artist with some mental health issues and artistic interests nearly as bizarre as Violet’s. His death brings Violet into contact with the police.
At some point during all of this I gave up even trying to like Violet. I just couldn’t. I don’t think it’s only because of the artistic subject, though that didn’t help. But even if she were taking photos of smiling babies I wouldn’t have liked her. She is so self-absorbed and obsessed with her art that she doesn’t care who she hurts to get what she wants. Towards the end of the story something truly, truly awful happens and Violet barely stops to draw breath before setting up her gear and taking a photo. All I could think was “cold-hearted bitch“.
And so we come to the heart of the matter. I really didn’t like Violet. And each time I stopped reading I became reluctant to re-start. I wanted to know what would happen – there’s so much I haven’t brought up here that is utterly fascinating about Violet’s family history and the way the story builds to its inevitable but entirely (by me) unpredicted third act – but I wanted to find out without having to spend more time with Violet. The wanting to know what would happen won out in the end but I came to almost resent the book for forcing me to spend time with such an unpleasant human being. I could go to work and do that and at least be paid.
But that’s a pretty good effort on the part of the author. She hooked me so thoroughly in the intertwined story of Violet and the city of Detroit – a city so damaged by the global financial meltdown that you can feel it creaking into decay – that I read on regardless of my growing antipathy towards Violet. Horrid though she may be (to me) Violet is totally compelling and the picture Abbott paints of Detroit is hauntingly memorable. When combined with the very good narration by Jennywren Walker of the audio version, the book’s sense of place made me truly feel like I was there.
If art is – at its best – supposed to make the beholder think then SHOT IN DETROIT is an absolute winner. I’m still mulling over aspects of it a month later. Does the end – in this case a successful and thought-provoking photographic exhibition – always justify the means? Is trampling over the feelings and needs of others what it takes to create great art? And if it is why can’t artists go get a proper job instead of hurting people for their cause. Do we need art that badly?
So do I recommend the book? The writing is excellent and the story suspenseful in a way that almost everything labelled ‘suspense’ fails to be. But should I be recommending you spend time with someone so unpleasant as Violet Hart? Someone so well written you won’t even be able to leave her within the pages of the book? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Jennywren Walker
Publisher Audible Studios 
Length 8 hours 54 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone