Scrambling to Survive: MysteryPeople Q&A with Patricia Abbott

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Patricia Abbott’s Shot In Detroit was one of my favorite crime novels of 2016. It follows Violet Hart, a down-on-her-luck Detroit photographer who sees her last chance at a big artistic break with her growing collection of photos of the city’s dead young black men. Abbott gives us complex looks at art, race, and morality with a protagonist to match. This bleak satire of art and urban decay is the kind of book you want other people to read, so you can talk about it. Luckily, I had the opportunity to talk to the author herself.

“The idea for Shot In Detroit came from asking myself if Detroit were a person, what would he/she be like? How could I combine the rough, lonely, beaten- down Detroit of 2010 with the brave, humble, and pugnacious one that was still there too. How would that person (a woman in this case) navigate the 2011 streets?”

MysteryPeople Scott: It sounded like the idea for this book had been with you for some time – what was the spark of it?

Patricia Abbott: The idea for Shot In Detroit came from asking myself if Detroit were a person, what would he/she be like? How could I combine the rough, lonely, beaten- down Detroit of 2010 with the brave, humble, and pugnacious one that was still there too. How would that person (a woman in this case) navigate the 2011 streets? Then I came upon an New York Times article about a photographer (Elizabeth Heyert) whose gallery show and book (The Travelers) photographed the deceased in Harlem. That seemed like a perfect fit for Violet Hart. Photographing the dead was something most of us wouldn’t be able to do. Even in the hands of an artist, it might be viewed as distasteful, exploitive, sinister. Hopefully I was able to persuade the reader that it was art by the end of the book. Although getting to that end was treacherous.

MPS: As you say, the city of Detroit plays a part itself. What did you want to say about it?

PA: Detroit, in 2011, was one of the poorest cities in the country. But it was surrounded by some of the richest suburbs. I wanted to draw attention to this. And those suburbs are largely populated by people who fled Detroit, especially after the 1967 riot and the court-ordered busing of school children in the 1970s. What looked like a viable means of desegregation was catastrophic to Detroit. I wanted to also point out that young black men were dying at an alarming rate. And not just from gun violence. The average Detroiter does not have a car, an education, a job, good medical care, a good transportation system, good roads. Putting Violet and her camera there hopefully brought some of this to light. And hopefully in not too didactic a way.

MPS: How did the year of 2011 get chosen?

PA: The great recession started in Detroit in the early 2000s and in fact, bottomed out around 2011. Investors began to buy up property around then. Artists were encouraged to relocate through low rents and a low cost of living. The car industry began its comeback. I wanted to place the story when there was some sort of perspective on what Detroit’s fate would be. In 2010, Quicken Loans, led by Dan Gilbert, moved its headquarters and 1,700 of its employees downtown. After moving all 3,600 Michigan-based employees into Detroit’s urban core by the end of 2010, the company has since created thousands of new jobs and now has approximately 14,200 employees in downtown Detroit. In the last five years, Detroit’s midtown and downtown area have been transformed by Mike Ilitch, Peter Cummings and Gilbert. Hopefully this redevelopment will continue to expand, but it will be necessary to improve the schools and city services for this to take place. You only have to travel a few blocks outside the core to see a still impoverished Detroit.

“Like Detroit, she is on the verge of complete failure when the book opens and hopefully some place better by its end. But she got to that better place through the fallen men of Detroit. Is she scrambling over their bodies to survive?”

MPS: I couldn’t help comparing with what Violet does with crime fiction. Do you see a line in exploring the disenfranchised and exploiting their plight?

PA: Exploring v. exploiting. That’s a great comparison. What is the correct subject matter for an artist or a writer? Is photographing naked children as Sally Mann did acceptable when it veers so close to porn? Can we say the artistic merit of a painting or a book allows it to avoid being called exploitation? This is a question Violet wrestles with throughout the book. More and more as her portfolio grows. She sets some parameters for herself, but perhaps not enough in terms of how she carries out her project. Like Detroit, she is on the verge of complete failure when the book opens and hopefully some place better by its end. But she got to that better place through the fallen men of Detroit. Is she scrambling over their bodies to survive?

MPS: Since I know how well read you are in the genre, what lesser know crime fiction gem of 2016 would you recommend someone to read?

PA: A book that readers might have missed in 2016 is Alex Marwood’s The Darkest SecretOur entire family read and were knocked out by this novel by the author of The Wicked Girls and The Killer Next Door.

You can find copies of Shot In Detroit on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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