Even though it is nonfiction, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit:An American Autopsy reads like a hard-boiled detective story where the case is not the death of a person but the death of a city and its people. The book takes place a few years before Detroit filed for bankruptcy, when the city’s then mayor was getting investigated by the feds. LeDuff cleverly writes that “By early fall, it was apparent that the feds had been laying more wire than the cable guy” around Detroit. In addition, the chief of police, unable to lower the actual murder rate, attempted to lower it by changing the definition of murder, and the Detroit Fire Department was stealing screen doors off abandoned houses because the city did not have enough money to buy screen doors for fire stations.
LeDuff grew up in Detroit and its suburbs then left the city for quite a few years to work as a journalist for the New York Times and other papers. Detroit: An American Autopsy mostly takes place when LeDuff returns to the city to work for the Detroit News. The city is emptying out and wildlife is returning due to the many abandoned lots. It is not uncommon to see deer or coyotes in the city.
Some readers will recognize a chapter in the book titled “Ice Man,” as this story gained national attention a number of years ago. The Ice Man was a semi-homeless man found dead and frozen in a block of ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft. He’d been there for days before anyone called 911 and stayed there frozen for even longer before any responders showed up.
Detroit: An American Autopsy is a brutally honest account of the most troubled city in the United States, but somehow LeDuff manages never to wallow in the misery. The key to the book’s success is that he does not stop at the shocking headlines but really gets to know the people still in Detroit.