My Five (actually Six) Favorite Novels Set In Detroit (or near Detroit)

My Six Favorite Novels Set in Detroit (or near Detroit)

1. THE DOLLMAKER, Harriet Arnow (1954) an immediate popular and critical success, THE DOLLMAKER tells the devastating story of a Kentucky family that moves north to reap the riches of the factories going up in Detroit. This book is due for another resurrection, which it enjoyed about 25 years ago when Jane Fonda starred in the TV version of it. Gertie Nevells makes a compelling hero.

2. CITY PRIMEVAL, Elmore Leonard. (!980) As with Loren Estleman, there are so many books from which to choose. With his usual flair for dialog and unerring sense of place, Leonard tells the amusing and realer than dirt story of Raymond Cruz, a Detroit cop, determined to bring down Clement Mansell, a funny-scary thrill killer.

3. SUGARTOWN, Loren Estleman (1985) Estleman won a Shamus Award for his fifth Amos Walker novel. Here he uses Detroit Mayor Coleman Youngs’ sellout of the Poles in Hamtramck to the car industry as a backdrop for a missing person story. Any of his many Amos Walker stories will do.

4. THEM, Joyce Carol Oates, Part of her three-volume look at Detroit, THEM is the story of a beaten down working class family from the thirties through the Detroit riots. Loaded with rapes, thefts and prostitution, no one can accuse Oates of being faint of heart or of writing another academic novel. She can hold her own with Leonard and Estleman.

5. MAMA, Terry McMillan (1987) set just north of Detroit in a smaller but just as poor town, McMillan first novel is the story of a black family living hand to mouth. The recent TURNER HOUSE (Fournoy) also a first novel, travels much the same ground.

6. MIDDLE SEX, Jeffrey Eugenides. Greek immigrants carry a genetic trait that dogs them in their rise from immigrant status to American success story. This one won lots of awards too. I prefer THE VIRGIN SUICIDES but that is set in a wealthy Detroit suburb. This one is partly set in Detroit. Although it can occasionally come off as a history lesson (the Detroit riot section especially) this is a masterful novel.

Patricia Abbott is the author of CONCRETE ANGEL (a 2016 Anthony nominee) and SHOT IN DETROIT, June 2016 (Polis Books). More than 150 of her stories have appeared in print or online. Many of these stories are collected in MONKEY JUSTICE and HOME INVASION (Snubnose Press). She hosts a look at Forgotten Books every Friday with readers, writers and reviewers at She hopes you’ll join in.