Thunder City

Thunder City

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by Loren D. Estleman

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In the days of the horse-drawn carriage, two men fight against Detroit’s power brokers for the promise of the automobile—and the future of a city
At the turn of the twentieth century, Detroit is still decades away from becoming the “Motor City.” The budding manufacturing town is little more than a confederation of tightly knit ethnic


In the days of the horse-drawn carriage, two men fight against Detroit’s power brokers for the promise of the automobile—and the future of a city
At the turn of the twentieth century, Detroit is still decades away from becoming the “Motor City.” The budding manufacturing town is little more than a confederation of tightly knit ethnic enclaves, ruled over by men like Abner Crownover III, horse-coach baron, and James Dolan, a portly politician who runs the city government from behind the scenes. They had thought their grip on this young city was secure, but internal combustion is about to destroy their empire. An industrial wizard named Henry Ford has come to Detroit with a dream of making a fortune from horseless carriages. Twice bankrupted, he has lost the faith of every investor in town, save for Crownover’s son Harlan. When Dolan and his father refuse to finance Harlan’s new business venture, Harlan turns to the Mafia for the money. In the battle for its future, Detroit’s streets will run with blood. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Loren D. Estleman including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Fifth in the highly lauded series of Detroit novels that began with 1990's Whiskey River, a marvel of Prohibition-era description, and continued variously with Motown, King of the Corner, and, most recently, Edsel (1995). The story this time goes back to turn-of-the-century Detroit and Henry Ford's third attempt to make his automobile factory solvent. Almost no one thinks that Ford's horseless carriage will ever take off and pay for itself—no one but Harlan Crownover, widely seen as the slow-brained member of a family renowned for its business sense. Harlan's father, Abner Crownover II, had risen from grease boy in his own father's firm to youthful genius who turned the firm into one that built short-haul freight vehicles and passenger coaches. These were capped by the elegant Crownover opera coach, which rode on a superb suspension system invented by Abner II, subsequently patented, leased to all other coach makers, and insuring Abner II of millions of dollars for the rest of his life. Or as long as coaches are made—and now young Harlan is backing Henry Ford. Harlan goes to Big Jim Dolan, the city's street railway commissioner, for a $5,000 loan he plans to sink into Ford's ingenious new assembly-line factory. When Dolan turns him down, Harlan hits up the Sicilian Prince, rising protection-racket boss Sal Borneo. Aside from being a health faddist, Borneo, tied to Dolan, has his hand in the city government—and into Ford by way of Harlan? Will Ford solve his rear-axle problem by stealing Abner II's spring suspension system? Will Harlan eventually take over the factory and become the new Coach Prince? Will bloody Sal turn on Harlan? A tour de force of descriptive energy,researched to hair's-breadth accuracy of detail, and packed with characters vivid enough to make Frank Norris dance a jig with Theodore Dreiser. Estleman's final cut on this epic series should be a single chronological, chrome-plated volume of mirror-clear prose.

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Open Road Media Mystery & Thriller
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Thunder City

A Novel of Detroit

By Loren D. Estleman


Copyright © 1999 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4863-8


The Irish Pope

At half past six every morning except Sunday, James Aloysius Dolan awoke to the polite knocking of his houseboy, Noche, who then opened the bedroom door and wheeled in his breakfast.

While the great man arranged himself into a sitting position in his massive mahogany box of a bed, the servant placed a footed wicker tray astraddle Dolan's imperial paunch and laid out the courses, removing the covers from the green majolica dishes, unrolling the heavy silver from the linen napkins, and filling the stemware from pitchers of water and fresh-squeezed orange juice. He used tongs to drop two lumps of sugar into a white china cup, poured thick cream over them, and topped off the cup with strong black coffee from the silver decanter, stirring the contents just twice with a short-handled spoon; his employer enjoyed anticipating the caramelized confection at the bottom. All this was accomplished with a minimum of noise and no conversation, as silence was strictly enforced until after Dolan had dined. Just before withdrawing, the servant transferred four morning newspapers from the bottom shelf of the cart to the top.

The breakfast menu varied little from day to day. It included a sixteen-ounce T-bone steak, served rare under a dozen scrambled eggs; a large platter of corned-beef hash; four thick slices of ham, well marbled and fried in lard; a quarter of a pound of bacon; six pancakes smothered with honey and maple syrup; a loaf of fresh bread, sliced into inch-thick slabs, toasted lightly on both sides, and slathered with butter and blackberry jam; a three-minute egg in a silver cup; four medium apples, sliced thin, deep-fried, and dusted with cinnamon; and a piece of chocolate. He ate everything without hurry, washing it down with four cups of coffee and wasting nothing. As he ate, he read each newspaper from the banner beneath the masthead through the shipping reports at the back, skipping the fiction supplements and making mental note of items he intended to discuss with his associates. One of the papers was in Hebrew, a language he did not read, but by studying the cartoons and rotogravures he was able to glean something of what his minority of Jewish constituents had on their minds. Armed with this and a fair command of Yiddish, he had managed to deliver a substantial percentage of the vote from the downtown corridor to his candidates in the last election—no small feat with a ballot top-heavy with Phelans, Murphys, Sullivans, O'Donnells, and Boyds.

When he was through eating, he mopped his lemon-colored muttonchop whiskers with the napkin he used as a bib and rang the silver bell on the tray. Noche came in to remove the breakfast things while he drew on an old dressing gown over his nightshirt and retired to the bathroom to move his bowels.

He was a man of many names. Friends who had known him since school called him Jimmy. Those who dealt with him through third parties referred to him as Big Jim—which, at six foot four and 350 pounds, with hand-lasted brogans on his size fifteens, he was, quite apart from his influence. The opposition press tagged him Boss Dolan, while his supporters in the Fourth Estate preferred the Honorable James A. Dolan or, whenever his sporting interests were the subject, Diamond Jim. He disliked the monicker hung upon him by the newspapers out-state: the Irish Pope. It assumed a self-deification of which he considered himself innocent. He did confess to a certain satisfaction with the good-humored nobility of the title conferred upon him by his cronies in the Shamrock Club and the beer gardens downtown; he enjoyed answering to "Himself." He was the only Himself in the Detroit area, except when the great John L. Sullivan paid a call to the city. On those occasions he graciously surrendered the office and honors to the man with the more resonant fame.

He pulled the chain on the tank and set out his shaving things. Shaving was an operation which for thirty-three years he had performed with an artist's meticulous care and some pleasure. He lathered his big red face with a badger-hair brush from a cake of lime-scented soap in a mug bearing his initials in gold, selected an ivory-handled razor from among seven in a leather case, each labeled with a different day of the week, and scraped his cheeks and round knob of chin and the underside of his jaw with the same long graceful strokes he used to whet the blade on the strop that hung beside the basin.

It amused him in a mildly cynical way that most people who responded to his name could not identify his formal title. The specific duties of Detroit street railway commissioner he delegated to clerks, while the office itself allowed him access to halls of government that would have been closed to him as chairman of the state Democratic Party, yet did not distract him from this important work with the more time-consuming responsibilities of a higher station. In this way he managed to elect mayors, governors, and congressmen. Although he was powerless against Theodore Roosevelt's popularity as the Republican president, he could and did hobble the damn Rough Rider through the representatives he had sent to Washington.

Serene in these ruminations, he returned to the bedroom, where Noche had laid out his black morning coat, striped trousers, pressed shirt, union suit, socks, and garters on the freshly made bed.

James Dolan dressed as carefully as he shaved, picking lint off his broadcloth sleeves, buttoning on a crisp collar from the box on the huge carved mahogany bureau that had come over with his father and mother from Limerick, and tying his green satin necktie, which he secured with a ruby horseshoe. He left only his black patent-leather shoes and dove gray spats to the manservant, who appeared at the very moment he was required to tie the laces and fasten the buttons and buckles; the magnificent Dolan belly made bending an exertion of energy best reserved for matters of broader import.

"Mrs. Dolan is up, I suppose?" Dolan asked then.

"Yes, sir. She is in the salon."

"The children, too, I suppose?"

"Yes, sir."

The exchange was ever the same. Mrs. Dolan was always up ahead of her husband, performing her ablutions in the bathroom they shared between their separate sleeping quarters (an arrangement of peace; Charlotte Dolan snored, James did not) and descending the stairs to awaken the children and dress them for school. She would have no maid or governess, and only tolerated Noche's presence in the house because her husband's needs and habits took time that she would rather devote to her issue.

Noche arranged the cuffs of Dolan's trousers over his insteps with two sharp tugs, rose, and asked if there would be anything else. Dolan said there would not. There never was, but one of the servant's many virtues was that he never failed to ask. The houseboy—he was over fifty, wrinkled and brown like tobacco leaves, with a streak of white in his short black hair—ducked his head a quarter of an inch and left, walking softly on the balls of his feet. This practice gave him an air of stealth he did not in fact possess. Noche was a former Cuban insurrectionist who had been freed from a cell in Morro Castle by the Americans at the end of the war with Spain, after the Spaniards had spent four months burning the soles of his feet with hot irons. He could stand to wear nothing on them more substantial than paper slippers. Dolan had discovered him literally on his doorstep seven years ago, barefoot and carrying a cardboard suitcase and a letter of introduction from a captain in the Thirty-first Michigan Infantry, the son of an old friend, for whom Dolan had arranged a commission one week after the U.S.S. Maine blew up in Havana Harbor.

The great man went downstairs to find his wife in the dining salon as reported. She was a small woman, inclined toward stoutness since turning forty, in a high-necked white blouse and a dark skirt from beneath which poked the shiny toes of her shoes, as tiny as her husband's were huge. She wore her brown hair swept up in the elaborate coif that had been common in the past decade, now eroding from a landscape filled with bright-eyed lady typewriters whose hairstyles were simpler and easier to maintain. Dolan had forbidden her to modernize her appearance, and she had decided to allow him to. She believed women in the workplace were a disruptive influence, and could not understand why they would abandon the advantages of their gender in order to spend twelve dreary hours in an office.

After exchanging cordial greetings with his helpmate, Dolan took his place at the head of the long maple table that was too large for the rather small room. Its chairs crowded the Eastlake sideboard and china cabinet, behind whose beveled glass was displayed the seventy-two-piece china set Charlotte had inherited from her late sister, and which only came out at Christmas and on St. Patrick's Day. Oval frames canting out from the flock-papered walls contained photographic portraits of James's and Charlotte's parents and smaller cabinet photographs of their own children in communion clothes. Sentimental St. Valentine's Day cards and ornate wedding invitations stood open atop the cabinet and sideboard. The dining salon was emphatically a woman's room, just as the book-lined and tobacco-smelling study at the other end of the house was a man's.

James accepted his fifth cup of coffee of the morning, poured by his wife, and left it on its saucer to cool while his children trooped in to greet their father before leaving for school. Nine-year-old Sean, small for his age and slight, resembled his father not at all except in coloring. Light-haired, with luminous eyes and a bright pink complexion, he was an excitable youth who studied hard and received failing grades in every subject. He would once again this year attend classes throughout the summer in order to avoid being left back. Seven-year-old Margaret, tall and horse-faced, with white ribbons in her dark hair to match her Catholic collar, was altogether a brighter student and seldom allowed what she was thinking to show in her expression. One of the crosses James bore was that his male and female progeny were born backwards. Sean was ill-suited for a career in either business or politics, while Margaret's talents, eminently practical to both, would go to waste when he married her off to the relative of a prospective ally. If he could manage to do even that; it grieved him to admit that his daughter was not comely. He loved and respected his wife, and she was devoted to him, but between them there was a dark place because she could bear no more children.

When the couple were alone, Charlotte sipping her coffee at the opposite end of the long table, Dolan asked if he had not heard the telephone bell earlier. He spoke of the instrument with distaste. He rarely used it and regretted that he had allowed it to be installed in the front hallway. Very quickly he had learned that a king's castle had no meaning when anyone with the power of speech could breach its walls.

"That polite Crownover boy called," replied his wife. "He asked if you would be home to him at three o'clock this afternoon. I said you would."

"Which Crownover, Abner the Third or Edward?"

"Neither. It was Harlan."

"Harlan?" He set down his cup with a click. "Whatever can he want to see me about? He's feeble-brained."

"He is not. He is shy. You would be as well if your father were Abner Junior. The man is a tyrant."

"The tax base could use a dozen more tyrants like him. He saved his father's business from bankruptcy after the old boy threw in with John Brown. Any self-respecting horse in the country would be proud to step into the traces of a Crownover coach. Our phaeton is a Crownover. You've never been ashamed to be seen riding in it up Piety Hill."

"The coach is not the man. Anyway, I hope you won't be after keeping Harlan waiting. He had to plead for the hour off and if I know Abner Junior, he'll dock the poor boy another hour if he's one minute late getting back."

Dolan consulted his pocket winder and made rumbling comments about having to cut short his afternoon to meet with the idiot son of a man who forbade politicking on company property, but they both knew the argument was over the moment Charlotte had introduced her view. He resigned himself to spending a bleak hour with a young man whose own father trusted him with duties no more pressing than those of foreman of the loading dock.

He finished his coffee, kissed his wife, and trundled out into the front hallway, where Noche waited with his hat, a soft dove gray one to match his spats with the brim turned up jauntily on the right side, and his stick, black walnut with a gold knob. It was a fine spring day, unseasonably warm for Michigan, and Dolan left his overcoat in the closet as he began his stroll. There were those who said he should move out of the narrow brick saltbox and into one of the more spacious homes on Jefferson Avenue facing the river. He was not among them. His father had laid each brick of the house in Corktown, he had grown up there, and it was over that high threshold he had carried his bride when he was a twenty-two-year-old switchman with the Michigan Central Railroad. In the small lumber room that became his study he had pored over borrowed books in preparation for the bar. In the parlor on the ground floor he had rehearsed the opening arguments of his first case, with Charlotte as his audience, practicing the gestures and finding the breath control that would win him his first elected office. Both his children had been born there, and he had fed William Jennings Bryan, George M. Cohan, and the great John L. in the dining salon and shared his golden Irish whiskey and General Thompson cigars with them afterward in the study. He intended that his wake should be held in the parlor; when he vacated the house for good he would do so on his back in a coffin made of sturdy white pine from the Upper Peninsula.

His daily rounds took him first to the Erin Bar in the next block, where he climbed a rubber-runnered staircase between horsehair plaster walls to the Shamrock Club on the second floor. He never drank alcohol before noon, and breakfast was too recent for him to partake of corned beef and cabbage, the chefs specialty, but he accepted yet another cup of coffee—in summer it would be a glass of lemonade—in the private curtained room where he conducted business, selected his first cigar of the day from a humidor proffered by Fritz, the club's German headwaiter, clipped off the end with the miniature guillotine attached to his watch chain, and lit it carefully with a long wooden match. The club's mahogany panels were hung with pictures in plaster frames of prizefighters and the ornate back bar was stocked with more mature whiskey than its somewhat larger counterpart downstairs.

For the next three hours he greeted his appointed visitors with courtesy, offering them cigars and the hospitality of his bill, and sat down with them at his table to hear their requests and complaints. A contractor wanted to arrange a permit to build a hotel on Woodward Avenue. A streetcar conductor named Hanrahan had fallen from the platform at the end of his shift, breaking his wrist, and wanted the city to pay his doctor's bills. A maker of moving pictures had a contract with the owner of the Temple Theater on Monroe Avenue, but had been denied permission to show his feature because it included a scene of two women undressing to their chemises and bloomers. Dolan vetoed the contractor's petition on the grounds that his hotel might cause hardship for Jim Hayes, a friend and party supporter who owned the Wayne Hotel in that block. He shook a stern finger at Hanrahan, whose accident was well known to have been the result of having made his last stop at Dolph's Saloon; but Dolan produced a roll of greenbacks from a pocket of his morning coat and peeled off enough of them to satisfy the man's doctor. (Hanrahan worked as an unpaid volunteer during elections, conveying Democratic voters to the polls without charge and tearing down Republican posters on his Sundays off.) There was nothing to be done for the moving-picture man, as the Temple was a private enterprise and not beholden to the city. Dolan softened this blow by giving the fellow the name of the manager of a burlesque house in Toledo that might have room on the bill for his ecdysiastic display. Judge Collier stopped by to pay his respects and accept the offer of a glass of beer, which he sipped through a straw to avoid staining his immaculate white beard. Brennan, the assistant party chairman, spent ten minutes discussing the November ballot, during which he drank three whiskeys, then shook half a dozen pieces of Sen-Sen into his mouth straight from the box and left, as steady on his feet as he had been arriving. His bantam body, tightly vested and topped with a shiny brown bowler, burned off everything he put into it within minutes. The man's nervous animation exhausted Big Jim, who valued the man's energy but preferred something more stationary in a companion.


Excerpted from Thunder City by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1999 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Loren D. Estleman (b. 1952) has written over sixty-five novels. His most enduring character, Amos Walker, made his first appearance in 1980’s Motor City Blue, and the hardboiled Detroit private eye has been featured in twenty books since. Estleman has also won praise for his adventure novels set in the Old West, receiving awards for many of his stand-alone westerns. In 1993 Estleman married Deborah Morgan, a fellow mystery author. He lives and works in Michigan.

Loren D. Estleman (b. 1952) has written over sixty-five novels. His most enduring character, Amos Walker, made his first appearance in 1980’s Motor City Blue, and the hardboiled Detroit private eye has been featured in twenty books since. Estleman has also won praise for his adventure novels set in the Old West, receiving awards for many of his standalone westerns. In 1993 Estleman married Deborah Morgan, a fellow mystery author. He lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Thunder City (Detroit Crime Series #7) 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Loren D. Estelman¿s Thunder City portrays a city of new beginnings and organized crime. Detroit is becoming a hotbed of automobile manufacturers and con men. Harlan Crownover emerges from the pack willing to jump into the automobile business and finance the mechanical genius Henry Ford. Harlan¿s father Abner, the wealthiest man in Detroit and many other powerful men fell that the automobile will ruin everything that they have worked so hard for. In his quest for financial backing, Harlan comes across Jim Dolan, the city¿s street railway commissioner who immediately turns him down. Next the relentless Crownover turns to the Sicilian Prince, Sal Borneo, a mafia boss who loves the idea of having young Harlan backed into a corner. Now the pressure rests on Ford to make an efficient, affordable vehicle. Could he overcome the pressure of Detroit¿s political scene? Or will he be crushed in his third attempt at the automobile industry? Loren Estleman¿s historical novel is a great look into the history of Detroit and the birth of the auto industry. It also delves into the first stages of organized crime, and Prohibition. While a good read, it is often difficult to follow and contains many unnecessary details that slow the progression of the story. At times the novel can be very suspenseful and riveting; but at other times, it can be very dull and uneventful. Estleman begins most chapters by setting the scenes with many lengthy, drawn out observations that eradicate the story¿s pace. For this reason I would recommend Thunder City to history lovers but not to those in search of an exciting quick read.