Detroit: An American Autopsy is a must-read for Detroit’s newcomers

American Autopsy

Moving to Detroit is like jumping into the middle of a thousand-page novel without any Cliffs Notes.

Earth-shaking plot points have passed and the characters’ bias is well-formed. Trying to insert yourself into that story is a challenge. Fortunately, you have a guide in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Writing with a voice that’s distinctively born of a blue collar youth, LeDuff uses his return to Detroit from L.A. to offer us an assessment of the city that is neither removed and out-of-touch nor drunk on a “rebirth” that seems only to selectively acknowledge the past.

“Autopsy” is a vividly accurate way to describe how this book opens. Early on LeDuff makes it that he won’t isn’t going to pull any punches about his hometown.

In a changing Detroit, LeDuff’s stories of long-time Detroiters are the only benchmark. These tales of burned-out homicide detectives, overwhelmed firefighters and parents of murdered children paint the type of honest portrait of Detroit that newcomers deserve to see.

Perhaps the most poignant story told within the book is that of a firehouse on the east side of the city. LeDuff covers the tragic death of a firefighter at a house burned for insurance money, and the city’s attempt to railroad a fire captain for speaking out against mismanagement in a city where arson runs rampant.

Detroit exists in a constant PR tug-of-war, and it would be easy to take a quick glance at this book and set it on the burn pile of anti-Detroit news reports, the kind of material that Americans of other cities read to feel more secure about their own city’s standing. No. This autopsy is meant to give all Americans an idea of the diseases that are growing within their cities.

As LeDuff notes in the prologue, “Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you’re laughing at yourself.”

I wasn’t laughing after reading this book, but LeDuff’s descriptions of political incompetence and corruption are so startling that if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. There are the millions of dollars “spent” on renovations for firehouses that don’t exist. Then there’s the sexting conversation between the mayor and his chief of staff. The examples are shocking, and LeDuff’s telling of them feels personal, even for somebody who wasn’t born and raised here.

Combined with the experiences of LeDuff and his own family of Detroiters, Detroit: An American Autopsy offers a dynamic and relatable understanding of the city.

LeDuff’s masterful prose creates a can’t-put-it-down relationship from the Prologue onward. Detroiter or not, you’ll find this a fast and eager read. And you’ll come out of it with good bullet points on Detroit’s economic downfall, battle with corruption and continued struggle with crime and injustice.

As a new resident of the area and employee in the city, this book gave me a sobering idea of where Detroit has come from on an intensely personal level. Any would-be participant in the renaissance of Detroit could use this book as a foundation for their perspective.

Want to read Detroit: An American Autopsy for yourself? Buy this book here:

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